Japan and Russia have entered the new century without the major diplomatic goal they had vowed to achieve by the end of 2000: the signing of a peace treaty. As a result, the bilateral territorial problem involving the Northern Territories — a World War II legacy that stands in the way of full normalization of relations between the two nations — remains unresolved.

The conclusion of a Russo-Japanese peace treaty is an essential condition for the broad expansion of normal cooperative relations between the two countries, neighbors and major members of international society. As such, the treaty will also have a salutary effect on regional and global stability. Both nations need to step up negotiations and sign the long-pending pact as early as possible.

This is not say that the signing of the treaty should take precedence over everything else in our bilateral relations. Japan should negotiate patiently with Russia without compromising its basic position that settlement of the territorial dispute is a prerequisite to the conclusion of a peace pact. It appears, however, that this position is now creating discord between the government and the Liberal Democratic Party, a member of the ruling coalition.

During his visit to Moscow in December, Mr. Muneo Suzuki, a key LDP legislator in charge of general affairs, discussed, among other things, the Northern Territories problem with ranking Russian officials, including a security aide to President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Suzuki, who has been promoting Japan-Russia relations, has made statements that seemed to deviate from the government’s basic position.

That LDP and Russian officials discuss bilateral issues is in itself welcome. Such talks can blaze the trail for government-level negotiations, particularly those directly involving the prime minister or the foreign minister. However, the Suzuki trip to Moscow, instead of bolstering the government’s position, has created the impression that the LDP may be trying to strike a different deal with Russia.

Foreign Minister Yohei Kono dismissed criticism of “dual diplomacy,” saying that Mr. Suzuki visited Russia in a private capacity and that he had not negotiated on the territorial issue. Despite that clarification, suspicion lingers that the government and the LDP may not be acting in unison. They must maintain a coherent negotiating stance, particularly when the two nations are having difficulty getting relations moving.

One thing must be reaffirmed at this stage: The handover of all islands in dispute — the Habomai group of islets, and Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu islands off Hokkaido — is indispensable to resolution of the Northern Territories problem. The government, however, is reportedly coming around to the view that the smaller Habomai and Shikotan islands should be returned first under the 1956 Japan-Soviet communique, and Japan should seek reversion of Kunashiri and Etorofu at a later date.

This two-step approach is designed to break the deadlock in the territorial talks. At a 1998 summit meeting, Japan proposed drawing a border just north of the Northern Territories to confirm Japanese sovereignty over these islands while allowing Russia to continue ruling them for the time being. Moscow rejected the proposal.

A phased handover is a departure from Japan’s consistent demand for a package reversion. However, the “two islands first” approach, which is based on the 1956 communique that led to the restoration of bilateral diplomatic relations, may be acceptable if assurances are given that the remaining two islands will be returned in the future. President Putin, during a visit here last September, confirmed the validity of that document, which his predecessor had all but dismissed. But the Putin statement does not mean that Moscow actually agreed to return Habomai and Shikotan.

The possibility is that Russia might return these islands on the condition that Japan give up its claims over the other two islands. But confirming the validity of the 1956 communique is no guarantee that the handover of Habomai and Shikotan will lead to the reversion of Kunashiri and Etorofu. Securing a complete handover is still a daunting challenge for Japan.

With the signing of a peace treaty carried over to the 21st century, territorial negotiations are off to a fresh start. Mr. Kono is scheduled to visit Moscow this week, while Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is expected to meet Mr. Putin in February. No doubt, talks will be as difficult as ever. After all, any territorial dispute is difficult to settle. What is crystal clear, however, is that no genuine normalization of relations between the two nations is possible before the territorial problem is settled.

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