Editorials

The stalemate in the Japan-Russia territorial row

The latest summit meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin, held in Vladivostok last week, failed to produce any progress in talks between the two countries to resolve the decades-long territorial row over a group of Russian-held islands off Hokkaido. Meeting for the 27th time, they only confirmed that they would continue to work on the issue — which has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a World War II peace treaty — in a “future-oriented” manner. They did not break much ground either over the proposed joint economic development of the islands — which Abe hopes will expedite the peace treaty talks — except to agree on holding a pilot project on tourism next month.

Last November, Abe and Putin agreed in Singapore that they should accelerate the talks on the basis of the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint statement, which called for the handover to Japan of two of the disputed islands — Shikotan and the Habomai islets — after they conclude the peace treaty. That was deemed a departure from Tokyo’s position of seeking the return of all the islands, including the much larger Kunashiri and Etorofu.

By effectively compromising its position to expedite the negotiations with Russia, there reportedly was optimism at one point on Japan’s part that some form of a broad agreement may be reached when Putin visits Japan in June to attend the Group of 20 summit in Osaka. That proved a false hope, however, since the bilateral talks over the territorial row appear to have entered a stalemate as Russia hardened its position on the issue.

Now the longest-serving prime minister in postwar history, Abe is believed to be keen on resolving the territorial row with Russia as a legacy of his administration. But the administration’s strategy of building a close personal rapport between Abe and Putin through the repeated talks, and deepening the economic ties between the two countries to propel the talks on the territorial dispute forward, has yet to produce a substantial progress for resolving the row.

Tokyo officially maintains that the disputed islands are territory inherent to Japan, which has been illegally seized by Moscow since the Soviet troops grabbed the islands at the end of WWII by violating a mutual neutrality pact. On the other hand, Moscow has argued that Japan should first recognize that the islands became Russian territory as a legitimate outcome of WWII.

Apparently in the hope of reaching a breakthrough with and not antagonizing Russia, government leaders in Tokyo have in recent months avoided calling the disputed islands Japan’s “inherent territory” or denouncing the “illegal occupation” by Moscow in Diet deliberations on the issue. That, however, has not stopped Russia from repeating its hard-line position.

Russia is also ramping up its rhetoric that Japan’s security alliance with the United States stands in the way of resolving the territorial row. Putin has expressed alarm over the possibility that U.S. troops could be deployed to the disputed islands under the Japan-U.S. alliance once they are handed over to Japan. Moscow also charges that Japan’s planned deployment of Aegis Ashore U.S.-made ground-based missile defense system, designed to cope with North Korea’s ballistic missiles, poses a security threat to Russia. Such charges challenge Japan’s national security policies and are unacceptable.

The latest Abe-Putin talks were held as the prime minister visited Vladivostok to attend the Eastern Economic Forum, a regional forum launched by Putin to lure more investment into Russia’s Far East region. Abe attended the forum for the fourth year in a row — an apparent indication of his willingness to expand economic ties with Russia as a catalyst to settle the territorial dispute.

On the other hand, Russia goes its own way in pursuing economic development of the disputed territory and modernizing its military installations on the islands. Just before the talks with Abe, Putin took part in a ceremony, remotely through video communication, to launch a new fisheries processing plant on the Shikotan Island.

In 2016 Abe and Putin agreed to discuss joint economic development of the disputed islands. But Russia continues to insist on the terms of such cooperation that is unacceptable to Japan — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Labrov said in August that the joint economic activities must be conducted under Russian laws. While Tokyo views the joint development of the disputed islands as a measure to help resolve the territorial row, Moscow sees it as a means to attract Japanese investments.

Instead of narrowing the gap over the territorial dispute, the Japan-Russia talks since last year seem to have highlighted the fundamental differences in their positions. To break the stalemate and move the talks forward, the government needs to review its approach to the long-standing row with Russia.