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Both Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the achievements made at their talks Sunday in Irkutsk, Siberia. Assessing the same meeting, however, the two leaders inadvertently acknowledged publicly that they were giving different interpretations of the talks on the long-pending problem of the Northern Territories. This means that their talks produced little new progress toward a settlement favorable to Japan’s claim on the islands east of Hokkaido — Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islets.

This result was anticipated. Since taking power, Mr. Putin has consistently assumed a cautious posture on the bilateral territorial issue even though he has indicated he understands the importance of resolving the territorial dispute, which has posed a major obstacle to improvement of relations between Japan and Russia throughout the postwar decades. No dramatic development could have resulted from the meeting between a leader like Putin and Prime Minister Mori, a lame duck.

The two nations, thus, cannot hope for a breakthrough in the territorial problem anytime soon. In fact, the Irkutsk summit indicates even more rocky going in the territorial negotiations between the two nations. Russia’s adamant stance will require that the post-Mori Japanese government rework Japan’s diplomatic strategy toward Russia with a new agenda for settling the territorial issue and concluding a peace treaty.

Held after the two countries failed to attain the agreed goal of signing a peace treaty by the end of 2000 — which was set under the 1997 Krasnoyarsk agreement, Sunday’s talks were intended to review the results of past negotiations in order to set a future course and goal for bilateral endeavors. In this sense, the crucial keyword in the joint statement issued at the Irkutsk summit was the 1956 joint declaration, signed by both governments. For the first time in bilateral talks fraught with twists and turns over the past five decades, the Irkutsk statement confirms that the 1956 document signed by Japan and the Soviet Union is a “basic legal document” serving as the starting point” for the bilateral peace-treaty process.

The 1956 joint declaration is a historic document that effectively terminated the state of war, restoring diplomatic relations between Japan and the Soviet Union. It stipulates that the Habomais and Shikotan Island will be returned to Japan following the conclusion of a bilateral peace treaty. In protest of the 1960 revision of the Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty, however, the Soviet Union unilaterally nullified this particular clause on the future reversion of the Habomais and Shikotan to Japan. Up to now, Moscow had rejected Japan’s demand to confirm the entire 1956 joint declaration as an effective document.

In view of these past developments, the fact that the two governments this week agreed to confirm that document, along with the 1993 Tokyo declaration, as a basic legal document that serves as the starting point for the bilateral peace-treaty process, can be viewed as a step forward. This may open the way for substantial talks on the reversion of Shikotan and the Habomai islets. But lessons from past negotiations tell us that it is too optimistic to expect that an agreement of this extent ensures substantial progress in negotiations.

The Japanese government basically understands that the reversion of Shikotan and the Habomais has now been agreed upon in the 1956 declaration. This position leads to the thinking that the remaining task is to step up efforts to have Kunashiri and Etorofu returned to Japan. On the other hand, as Mr. Putin’s remarks indicate, Moscow interprets the declaration to mean that the territorial dispute should be finally settled with the reversion of Shikotan and the Habomais. There is no denying the possibility that Russia will agree to return Shikotan and the Habomais only on condition that Japan give up its claim to Kunashiri and Etorofu.

On Sunday, the two leaders also agreed to boost negotiations to achieve a “solution mutually acceptable to both sides” and to decide at an early date “a specific direction” for peace-treaty negotiations. But they failed to agree on a specific deadline for concluding a peace treaty, reportedly because of Russia’s opposition. This makes the Irkutsk declaration’s binding power weaker than that of the Krasnoyarsk accord. Japan must follow up the latest bilateral agreement with increased efforts to unify views within the government and the governing parties on the final form of an agreement — reversion of only two islands or all the disputed islands — with Russia. It should also be kept in mind that Japan-Russia relations should not only revolve around the territorial problem.

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