Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who served as a special envoy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, held talks in Moscow on Feb. 21 to discuss bilateral relations. The talks laid the groundwork for Mr. Abe’s visit to Moscow from late April to early May. Japan needs to try to create an environment that will help to establish trust between Mr. Abe and Mr. Putin.
The expected meeting between Mr. Abe and Mr. Putin will signal the restart of negotiations over the sovereignty of the Northern Territories — four islands off the coast of Hokkaido that are occupied and controlled by Russia.
The negotiations will be long and difficult. It will be all the more important for Japan to work out short- and long-term strategies that will help move bilateral relations forward and eventually lead to a settlement of the territorial issue.
In his meeting with Mr. Mori, Mr. Putin said it is abnormal that there is still no peace treaty between his country and Japan. In March 2012, shortly before becoming Russian president for the second time, Mr. Putin told news reporters that he hoped to resolve the territorial issue “eventually,” emphasizing the need for both Russia and Japan to find common ground.
At that time, he used the Japanese word hikiwake, which means a draw or a tie. He explained to Mr. Mori that hikiwake in this case would mean a solution in which there is no win and no loss for either party and that is acceptable to both parties. Since a complete win for one party in a diplomatic matter only leads to more problems, Mr. Putin’s attitude seems realistic.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Mori confirmed the importance of the joint statement they issued in Irkutsk in March 2001. It said that the 1956 Japan-Russia joint declaration — in which Russia promised to hand over Habomai and Shikotan islands, two of the four islands, to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty — remains in force and that both countries will advance negotiations toward a peace treaty by resolving the territorial issue.
But the gap between the two countries is wide. Mr. Putin is reportedly inclined to regard the handing over of Habomai and Shikotan as a final solution to the territorial issue, while Japan thinks that Russia should accept from the outset that Japan has sovereignty over all four islands.
Both Japan and Russia should try to work out a solution to the territorial issue through a process of strengthening cooperation in economic matters and for establishing peace and stability in East Asia. Mr. Putin has high hopes that Japan will contribute to the economic development of eastern Siberia, including the region’s vast energy resources. He has also strongly criticized North Korea’s recent nuclear test. Japan should seek opportunities to increase cooperation with Russia while carefully considering how to eventually resolve the territorial issue.