In a recent appearance before the Diet, Foreign Minister Taro Aso floated the idea of settling the long-standing feud with Russia over the sovereignty of the Northern Territories (four islands off Hokkaido) by evenly dividing the total area of dispute. In September, Aso sug gested the possibility of accepting the reversion of three of four islands.

At a subsequent news conference, Aso denied that the government was seriously considering a plan to equally divide the territories between Japan and Russia, but it is outrageous that Aso, as the top Japanese diplomatic leader, even mentioned such an idea. His remarks could have sent the wrong message to Russia that Japan was ready to change its negotiating stance, hurting Japan’s national interest.

Japan’s policy regarding the territories is based on the 1993 Japan-Russia Tokyo Declaration: that the two nations would seek to sign a peace treaty by settling the issue of sovereignty over the four islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai.

Thus there should be no hurry in the territorial negotiations. Aso’s remarks, if intended to bolster the declining popularity of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet, were unpardonable.

In an interview given in late September immediately after the inauguration of the Abe Cabinet, Aso said accepting the return of three islands could be one idea to solve the dispute.

The Russian newspaper Izvestia, reporting the comment, said the Japanese government came up with a “shocking initiative” to divide the disputed islands “in response to a statement made on Sept. 9 by Russian President Vladimir Putin.” The paper treated Aso’s comment as the Japanese government’s official response.

Since 2004, the Putin administration has taken a hard line regarding the Northern Territories.

In November 2004, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country wanted to settle the dispute by returning Shikotan and Habomai to Japan on the basis of the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration. Putin endorsed the statement.

In September 2005, Putin said the four islands were under Russian sovereignty as a consequence of World War II. Two months later, Putin, meeting with then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Tokyo, refused to endorse the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, and no joint statement was issued at the summit.

In his talks with Japanese and other foreign Russian-affairs experts, Putin was quoted by Izvestia as making the following points, according to the president’s official Web site (as disclosed by the Japanese government):

Russia wishes to settle all pending problems with Japan, including the territorial issue, under conditions acceptable to both nations. Finding a solution will not be easy but it is possible.

The 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration says the Soviet Union agrees to return two islands to Japan on condition that a bilateral peace treaty is concluded.

The document says nothing about conditions for the handover — whether it will be by lease or permanent reversion, whether it will require payment, or which country will have sovereignty.

Putin has apparently left open the possibility that Russia will have sovereignty over the two islands.

The Putin administration’s hard line regarding the islands reflects Russia’s increasing political and economic stability, according to analysts. Russia has achieved political stability by centralizing power and tightening the presidential control of outlying regions and media. The economy is prospering thanks to higher oil prices. In July, Russia hosted the Group of Eight summit of major industrial nations for the first time. Russia is full of pride as a major power, with nationalistic sentiment growing.

With a Lower House election due in December 2007 and a presidential election set for 2008, Russia is entering a political season and is unlikely to make concessions to Japan over the territorial issue.

On Aug. 8, 1945, the Soviet Union started war against Japan in violation of the bilateral neutrality pact. The war ended soon afterward, but the Soviets started occupying the four islands — in the absence of U.S. forces — on Aug. 29, two weeks after Japan’s surrender.

Historically the four islands have been integral to Japan. In 1855, Japan and czarist Russia concluded a treaty of commerce and friendship to establish a border between Etorofu island — the northern end of the territories — and Urupp island — the southern end of the Kurils.

After twists and turns in bilateral territorial negotiations, the Tokyo Declaration called for settling the question of sovereignty over the four islands. Putin, however, has flouted the declaration.

Lower House Speaker Yohei Kono reportedly praised Putin’s remarks on the territorial issue at a Moscow meeting held in September between Group of Eight Lower House speakers and Putin. Given the context of Putin’s remarks, Kono’s comment could be regarded as signaling the Japanese leadership’s readiness to agree to the reversion of two islands — Habomai and Shikotan.

Aso, in denying that he advocated evenly dividing the territories between Japan and Russia, said the issue should be settled while Putin has strong leadership and political clout. Aso probably meant that Japan should seek settlement before his term ends in 1 1/2 years, but setting a deadline would put Japan at a disadvantage in the talks.

Abe and Putin, meeting in Hanoi in November, agreed to continue the territorial negotiations. Such negotiations, however, must be based on long-term strategies spanning hundreds of years. Over the long term, the international situation and the balance of power between Japan and Russia are likely to change greatly.

The Abe administration should stick to the nation’s principles and pursue diplomatic negotiations with a resolute and unhurried attitude.

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