Japan and Russia remain far apart on the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories, a group of northern Pacific islands known to the Russians as the Southern Kurils. The meeting over the weekend in Moscow between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Russian President Vladimir Putin produced no progress toward solving the problem, which has prevented the two nations from concluding a peace treaty to formally end World War II.

The two leaders signed an “action plan” calling for long-term cooperation in trade, energy development and other areas. They also issued a statement expressing their determination to expand bilateral ties. On the territorial dispute, however, they did little more than confirm previous statements, reiterating the need to sign a peace treaty “as early as possible” by resolving the sovereignty claims.

The Northern Territories issue appears to have been assigned a lower priority on the Koizumi administration’s political agenda. In the past, Tokyo has emphasized that a territorial settlement is an essential condition for significant improvement in Russo-Japanese relations. Now, official denials notwithstanding, the islands issue appears to have been sidetracked to promote economic relations.

The disputed islands — which the Soviet Union seized at the end of World War II — historically belong to Japan, and achieving their full return is a cherished dream of the Japanese people. The government must continue to press for a settlement lest the Russians begin to believe that Tokyo is willing to put the issue on hold.

It is the first time since November 1998 that a Japanese prime minister has made an official visit to Russia. The Koizumi trip was a flop in the sense that it produced no territorial breakthrough. The silver lining is that the two sides have agreed on a new approach that seeks to resolve the dispute through cooperation in a broad range of areas.

The action plan calls for, among other things, stepped-up political and defense dialogues, expanded cultural and human exchanges, and extensive cooperation in the international arena. Significantly, this reflects changes in the international environment surrounding Russia, which has joined in the U.S. war on terrorism and has also formally joined the Group of Eight.

In his talks with Prime Minister Koizumi, President Putin presented himself as a powerful partner in the international community. For example, he promised cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs. He also offered help in resolving the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents during the Cold War.

Still, Japan’s relations with Russia — measured by trade volume and number of visitors, for example — pale in comparison to those with China and other nations. And to most Russians, Japan remains a distant country. This appears to be making it even more difficult to work out a territorial solution. Moreover, with a Russian presidential election scheduled for March 2004, it is unlikely that President Putin will show his hand until he wins re-election.

Nevertheless, it is abnormal that the two countries still have no peace treaty nearly half a century after Japan and the Soviet Union normalized relations, although various attempts have been made to clear the territorial obstacle. The much-touted 1997 commitment by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin to signing the treaty by the end of 2000 never materialized.

More recently, in 2001, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and President Putin agreed that terms for the handover of the smaller islands (Habomai and Shikotan) and the claims over the larger islands (Kunashiri and Etorofu) should be negotiated separately. In a 1956 communique, the Soviet Union had agreed to return Habomai and Shikotan when a peace treaty was signed. This parallel approach, however, offered no assurances that the larger islands will also be returned. In fact, reports from Russia suggested that Moscow might be trying to end the dispute with the handover of the smaller islands. What is more, excessive political intervention made Tokyo’s policy on the issue somewhat confusing.

In a way, the Koizumi-Putin meeting was an attempt to put the territorial issue in a new light — an attempt to address it as part of broader efforts to improve the quality of Japan-Russia relations. This is the right approach, but the ultimate goal of signing a peace treaty remains elusive. In the meantime, cooperation in energy and other economic projects looks set to make progress. If this is the case, the action plan — which Mr. Koizumi called a “marine chart” for Japan-Russia relations — may well end up a one-way voyage.

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