Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tokyo this week for the first time in five years for a summit meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. They and their ministers signed 12 documents, ranging from joint efforts to counter international terrorism to economic cooperation, including a Russian promise to build an oil pipeline from eastern Siberia to the Sea of Japan coast.

But the two leaders failed to make a breakthrough in the Northern Territories dispute, preventing the summit from producing a joint statement. The Northern Territories consist of four islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan islands, and the Habomai islets — that Soviet forces seized in an operation that started on Aug. 18, 1945, three days after Japan’s surrender, and continued to early September that year. The islands have been occupied since by Russians.

In the summit, Mr. Koizumi called on Mr. Putin to confirm the existence and validity of past agreements such as the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration and the 1993 Tokyo Declaration. Japan believes the territorial talks should proceed on the basis of these agreements. In the 1956 joint declaration, the Soviet Union agreed to hand Shikotan Island and the Habomai islets over to Japan after the two countries sign a peace treaty. The 1993 declaration, signed by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, confirmed that territorial negotiations should cover the four islands and should be based on past documents jointly made by the two nations — including the 1956 joint declaration, according to Mr. Yeltsin — and on the principle of law and justice.

Mr. Putin refrained from clearly responding to Prime Minister Koizumi’s statement. Instead, he said that Russia would like to pursue a mutually acceptable solution to the border-demarcation issue. He also said that while Russia really wants to resolve the issue, a demarcation change would affect other territorial issues that resulted from World War II, posing a problem for Russia. Although the two sides agreed to continue consultations on the territorial dispute, Mr. Koizumi had to admit at a news conference that their positions are far apart.

In 2001, Mr. Putin himself signed a statement in Irkutsk together with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, which confirmed the validity of a series of documents that include the 1956 joint declaration and the 1993 Tokyo declaration. About a year ago, however, he said that he was ready to fulfill the obligation concerning Shikotan and the Habomai islets as spelled out in the 1956 joint declaration, but criticized Japan for calling for the return of all four islands. In September 2005, he said that under international law, the four islands are clearly under Russian sovereignty and that no room exists for doubting that fact.

Several factors may be behind his hardline stance. Mr. Putin may be exploiting the fact that the 1956 joint declaration is the only document concerning Japan-Russia relations that has been ratified by the legislatures of both countries. Japan may have once sent a misleading signal to Russia after the Irkutsk meeting when it temporarily adopted a two-prong approach of pushing two sets of negotiations simultaneously, one for the return of Shikotan and the Habomai islets, and the other for the return of Etorofu and Kunashiri. Russia may have believed that Japan would be satisfied with return of only Shikotan and the Habomai islets. Or the booming Russian economy may have emboldened Mr. Putin. High oil prices are bringing prosperity to Russia, a major oil producer, and its economy is growing at the rate of around 7 percent. Mr. Putin may be thinking that there is no need to settle the territorial row to attract Japan’s economic assistance, and that bilateral economic relations will grow even if the territorial dispute remains unresolved.

There will be no shortcut for Japan to achieve its goal. The dispute will only be resolved when Russo-Japanese relations are harmonious enough to eliminate mistrust. Japan should implement with sincerity the agreed points in the signed documents, which include an endorsement of Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization and cooperation in many fields such as energy, information and communication technology, and the dismantling of old Russian nuclear-powered submarines. In addition, both sides should avoid politicizing the territorial issue as doing so could spoil the results achieved through past efforts. Both sides must persist in efforts to build mutual trust and confidence, which have all too often been in short supply.

Japan also should step up efforts to create an international environment that will help resolve the territorial issue. Improving its ties with neighboring countries is indispensable.

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