The latest summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the fifth in eight months, did not appear to have resulted in any substantive progress toward resolving the long-standing dispute over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido — which Tokyo has long said is the prerequisite for concluding a formal World War II peace treaty with Moscow. The two leaders only said they have reconfirmed their intentions to expedite the peace treaty talks on the basis of the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration, which calls for handover of the two smaller islands to Japan upon the signing of a peace treaty, as they agreed on last November.
Abe reportedly hopes to move the issue forward when Putin visits Japan to attend the Group of 20 summit in June — even by agreeing to a compromise settlement that deviates from Japan’s long-held position over the dispute. However, Russia does not appear ready to bend its position to settle the dispute with Japan. The prospect that even a compromise settlement will be reached anytime soon is far from clear.
Abe, who is in his final three-year term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party through 2021, has expressed his eagerness to resolve the dispute over the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islets — which were seized by Soviet forces following Japan’s surrender in 1945 — while he is in office. He has sought to build a personal rapport with Putin — holding as many as 25 meetings so far with the Russian leader — and has explored fresh approaches to resolving the dispute, including joint economic development of the disputed islands. In the previous summit in November, Abe agreed with Putin to accelerate the peace treaty talks on the basis of the 1956 declaration, which says Moscow will hand over Shikotan and the Habomai islets but makes no mention of the much larger islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu, which account for more than 90 percent of the disputed territory.
Japan has for decades sought to resolve the dispute over the sovereignty over all of the islands before concluding the peace treaty. Abe, however, is reportedly considering signing the treaty once Russia promises the handover of Shikotan and Habomai, judging it as a “realistic option” given that there is little chance that Moscow would agree to returning Kunashiri or Etorofu.
As Abe himself acknowledges, ending a dispute that has remained unresolved for more than 70 years after the war will not be easy. A practical compromise might be necessary, as the two leaders say, to find a solution that will be mutually acceptable to both countries. The question is whether the compromise will serve Japan’s national interests. The government needs to carefully examine what Japan will gain by unilaterally compromising on the position it has maintained for decades in the dispute with Russia.
The problem is that Japan appears to be pushing for a quick settlement to the dispute with Russia while Moscow seems to be in no hurry to move the talks forward; Russia is even hardening its position. In their talks earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, that to propel the peace treaty discussion forward, Japan must first accept that the islands became Russian territory as a result of World War II — a position that cannot be accepted given that Tokyo has long blamed Moscow for illegally occupying the islands.
With or without progress on the territorial row, Japan and Russia seem to be moving forward in their economic ties. In their latest meeting in Moscow, Abe and Putin said they would push for cooperation in a variety of fields, from trade and investments to exchanges of people. Putin said he proposed boosting bilateral trade by 1.5 times to $30 billion annually in the near future, while Abe said Japan would try to double the number of mutual visitors to each other’s country by 2023. They also agreed on expanding the scope of cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces and the Russian military as a confidence-building measure. On the other hand, Russia seems to be in no rush to expedite the peace treaty talks with Japan, as domestic opposition mounts against any territorial concessions to Japan while Putin’s popular support falls at home.
It may indeed be unrealistic to expect to settle the dispute without a compromise on Japan’s position. It’s natural that in diplomatic talks, the government cannot divulge its negotiating position. Still, the government will need to do some explaining to the Japanese public — especially whether and how the possible compromise will be consistent with its long-standing position that the islands are Japan’s inherent territory — to win public endorsement of how it seeks to settle the dispute.