The deadlock in Japan-Russia relations shows no signs of ending anytime soon. A Tokyo visit by President Vladimir Putin — which had been expected early this year — is up in the air now that an advance trip by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, initially set for earlier this month, has been postponed indefinitely. A cloud of uncertainty also hangs over the long-delayed plan to open an intergovernmental committee on trade expansion and energy cooperation.
At a meeting last year with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Mr. Putin agreed to visit Japan. In January, the foreign ministers of the two countries met to arrange Mr. Putin’s itinerary, but to no avail. Evidently the two sides are not ready to break the ice in their bitter dispute over the Northern Territories — a group of Japanese islands the Soviet Union seized toward the end of World War II.
That is unfortunate, especially because this is a memorable year for both countries: the 150th anniversary of the 1855 Treaty of Amity — which established diplomatic relations between Japan and Russia — and the centennial of the Russo-Japanese War. The treaty set the border between Russia’s South Kuril island of Urup and Japan’s northernmost island of Etorofu.
It must be everyone’s wish that the decades-old territorial dispute is settled in this milestone year so that Tokyo and Moscow can sign a long-pending post-World War II peace treaty. However, Japan must avoid any hasty, halfway compromise that disregards its national interests.
Japan’s basic negotiating position is laid out in the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, which refers to all four islands in dispute — Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai (a cluster of islets) and Shikotan. The landmark document states that a peace treaty will be concluded after the sovereignty claims to all these islands are settled in light of historical and legal facts, on the basis of the documents agreed to between the two countries, and according to the principle of law and justice.
The “agreed documents” include the 1855 treaty of amity and the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration in which the two sides agreed to end their technical state of war and restore diplomatic relations. Given their continuing differences over the islands, however, they agreed to put off the signing of a peace treaty until after the territorial issue was resolved.
The joint declaration was recognized as the starting point for peace treaty talks in a statement issued by Mr. Putin and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in Irkutsk in 2001. On that basis, the statement, known as the Irkutsk Declaration, reaffirmed that the treaty would be signed after the sovereignty issue involving all four islands was resolved in accordance with the Tokyo Declaration.
However, Mr. Putin made it clear at a press conference late last year that Russia would return only the smaller islands of Habomai and Shikotan. The Russian president described the Japanese demand for all four islands as “incomprehensible,” citing the 1956 declaration in which the Soviet Union agreed to return Habomai and Shikotan after a peace treaty was concluded.
Mr. Putin’s “new” position contradicts the Irkutsk Declaration, which clearly states that the settlement of all territorial claims under the Tokyo Declaration is an essential condition for the signing of a peace treaty. By effectively disavowing an official document he himself signed, Mr. Putin risks losing international confidence in his integrity.
Prospects for the Northern Territories issue improved markedly, or so it appeared, in 1997 when Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Boris Yeltsin agreed that it should be settled by 2000. That agreement, however, disappeared into thin air, in part because of political instabilities in Russia.
Diplomacy is said to be an extension of domestic politics. The implication here is that a territorial dispute, involving as it does the sensitive question of national sovereignty, will stir up nationalism unless it is handled with the utmost discretion. That may sound like a cliche, but there is no sensible alternative to patient, coolheaded negotiations. The Japanese government must maintain its basic position, setting its sights firmly on the nation’s long-term interests.
At last year’s summit, Mr. Putin told Mr. Koizumi that he attached “strategic importance” to Russia’s relations with Japan. In our view, Russia has far more to gain by building a “strategic partnership” with Japan through the handover of all four islands than by holding on to these small islands, which historically belong to Japan.
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