Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is scheduled to visit Irkutsk, Russia, on March 25 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. What will happen if Mori steps down before then?

Since the summit was postponed for a month at Russia’s request, it would be diplomatically embarrassing for the Russian government to ask for another postponement on the grounds that this one was based on a personal agreement between Mori and Putin.

If Japan were to ask for a delay in the summit due to a change of government, it could give the impression to Russia and the international community that Japan is not as enthusiastic as it claimed to be regarding the signing of a bilateral peace treaty. On the other hand, a new prime minister could make little progress in solving bilateral issues in a daylong summit.

Whatever happens, the Russian government will feel relieved. The Putin administration has never been enthusiastic about the summit. For Japan, progress in negotiations on a bilateral peace treaty has been exasperatingly slow since the years of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. But Moscow feels it is being driven into a tight corner by Tokyo in the negotiations.

Should the summit be held, Japan would ask Russia to reaffirm in writing:

* that it is committed to returning two island chains — Habomai and Shikotan — after the signing of the peace treaty under the terms of the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration and

* that future bilateral negotiations will concern the reversion of the two other island chains, Kunashiri and Etorofu.

The above two points are included in documents signed by the top leaders of Japan and of the Soviet Union or Russia, and ratified by the countries’ legislatures. Russian Presidents Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Putin have signed the agreements. Putin, who once described himself as a legal expert, is in no position to refuse to confirm the agreements in writing.

Putin has been trying to avoid a summit with a Japanese prime minister, fearing he will be asked to confirm the two points. When Foreign Minister Yohei Kono visited Moscow in January, Putin declined to meet with him. In addition, Putin asked for a one-month postponement of the Japan-Russia summit. Russia, ready to suffer a diplomatic embarrassment to seek a postponement of the summit, would welcome the replacement of the Japanese prime minister.

All things considered, it is easy to conclude that Mori, or his successor, should visit Russia for the summit. However, such a decision may not necessarily be the right one.

The summit’s success will depend on its substance. I say this because some Japanese, frustrated by Russia’s delaying tactics, are arguing that Tokyo should first take whatever Moscow is willing to return — the two island chains to start with. But in that case, it could become difficult for Japan to realize the reversion of all the four island chains.

Russia seeks to sign a peace treaty with Japan by returning two island chains. On the other hand, Japan hopes to sign a peace treaty that includes Russia’s commitment to return all four island chains. There are unbridgeable differences between the Japanese and Russian positions on the issue. In practical terms, Japan will have to choose between the two or the four island chains in seeking the reversion of the Northern Territories.

To make it look like a success, the Irkutsk summit could issue a vague document subject to varied interpretations. Should Japan agree to such a document, new frictions could arise in relations between Japan and Russia.

A Japanese prime minister should refuse to sign any document at the Irkutsk summit unless it includes a Russian commitment to return all four island chains. Only with such a commitment should the prime minister attend the summit.

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