Tokyo and its Russian yoke

Posted in Russia | 15-May-05 | Author: J Sean Curtin| Source: Asia Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi seen during their meeting in Moscow, Monday, May 9, 2005.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi returned empty-handed to Tokyo on Tuesday after a disappointing bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. At the heart of Moscow-Tokyo tensions is a bitter dispute over a group of islands off the north of Japan which the former Soviet Union seized at the end of World War II. The 60-year-old dispute is blocking the conclusion of a peace treaty between the two nations and impeding the development of economic links.

The leaders' failure to make any concrete advance on this and other key issues indicates that the current deadlock in Russo-Japanese relations is not likely to end any time soon. Putin's proposed Japan trip, initially scheduled for early 2005, also remains up in the air. It was hoped that Koizumi's visit for the commemoration would make headway in resolving the long-standing island disputes, or at least demonstrate Tokyo's willingness to find a workable solution.

Former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar believes the failure to resolve the issue is to Japan's economic disadvantage, and allows China to strengthen its economic ties with Moscow at Tokyo's expense. He told Asia Times Online, "This situation just means that there are more opportunities for energetic Chinese corporations." He added, "For big corporations to have a meaningful presence in Russia is a very long process."

Koizumi, along with other world leaders, was in Moscow to attend a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the World War II. His 30-minute Monday evening audience with Putin produced little. The two leaders not only failed to discuss the islands territorial dispute but also Japan's bid for a permanent United Nations Security Council seat.

They did touch on North Korea's nuclear weapons program and options for dealing with the stalled six-party talks on the Stalinist state's nuclear ambitions.

It was also confirmed that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, will meet for talks at the end of May in Tokyo. These discussions are expected to focus on the thorny territorial problem. However, since several rounds of earlier exchanges have ended in stalemate, these negotiations are unlikely to make any real progress.

Both sides claim full sovereignty over what Tokyo refers to as the Northern Territories and Moscow calls the Southern Kurils. Since neither party appears willing to accept a compromise formula to resolve the issue, political ties are stagnating.

Putin would prefer to visit Tokyo once a framework for settling the dispute has been agreed upon. This stance has so far made setting even a provisional date impossible. He was originally scheduled to visit in early 2005 to mark the the 150th anniversary of the 1855 Treaty of Amity, which established diplomatic relations between the countries.

After the summit, reporters pressed Koizumi about when the Russian president might visit, and the premier optimistically responded, "Japan is open to the timing.'' He added, "We will arrange it through our diplomatic channels."

While it is difficult to find any Japanese commentator who is sure Putin will actually come to Tokyo this year, professor Alexander Fedorovskiy, of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of World Economy and International Relations, is more upbeat. Although he couldn't predict exactly when, he confidently told Asia Times Online, "Putin will definitely go to Japan." However, he was far less optimistic that the impasse over the islands could be resolved swiftly.

The Northern Territories/Southern Kurils dispute revolves around a remote wind-swept archipelago, located just off the eastern tip of Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. The group consists of three large islands, Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan, and the smaller Habomai group of islets, all of which were seized by the Soviet Union in 1945.

Japan has never renounced its claim to the islands, and the dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing any peace treaty to formally end hostilities, a situation which technically leaves them still at war.

The return of the little known islands does not arouse any real sense of passion among the Japanese or Russian public. However, for nationalist lawmakers in both countries it is a matter of principle and national pride.

Partial return on offer
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Japan has put forward a range of proposals involving some form of partial territorial return, often combined with an element of shared sovereignty.

One such idea envisages drawing a national borderline between Russia and the disputed territories, while allowing Moscow the right to govern the islands for a lengthy period. There have also been discussions about returning the Habomai islets and Shikotan Island to Japan in parallel with separate sovereignty talks on Kunashiri and Etorofu.

However, the Kremlin has expressed practically zero interest in any Japanese initiative. "Our stands on the territorial issue are completely opposite," is how Lavrov has summed up the difference between the two positions.

Moscow is only willing to agree to the return of the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan Island. This position is in accord with the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration which stipulated that both territories will be returned to Tokyo once a peace treaty is concluded. This option is currently unacceptable to Tokyo, which also wants the return of Kunashiri and Etorofu.

Professor Fedorovskiy explained the Russia angle, "The position is to offer back two islands. It will be difficult to get through the Russian parliament, but I am sure he will do it. Putin will not give back all four islands, but perhaps in the future there will be some room for discussion. However, the Japanese position has become less flexible and much more ridged. Now they want all four islands, before they said, at least they said in private, two would be okay."

Koizumi is on record as saying, "Without the restoration of the four islands, we will not have a Japan-Russia peace treaty."

Grigoriy Yavlinsky, leader of the opposition Yabloko Party, and a former Russian presidential candidate, does not think there is any hope of Russia and Japan resolving the dispute. He told Asia Times Online, "No way. No. There is absolutely no chance. I just cannot see it happening."

Former prime minister Gaidar has a more long-term perspective, "I believe many of the older generation Japanese want all those islands to be given to them. I hear the younger generation are not so interested about this issue, so, give it some more years and the situation will improve."

Until a resolution is found, it does not look like political and economic ties between the two neighbors will improve much.

Dispute damaging Japan's regional position
Economic logic would appear to indicate that it is in Tokyo's long-term interest to resolve the issue. Japan already realizes its future energy needs may depend on competing for supplies of Siberian crude oil. Both Japan and China are trying to persuade Russia to give them priority over the route of a planned crude pipeline from Siberia to Russia's Pacific Coast. Last year, Tokyo appeared to have persuaded the Kremlin to build the oil pipeline to the Pacific port of Nakhodka, the route backed by Tokyo. Beijing favors a pipeline to Daqing in northwest China.

However, at the beginning of May, Moscow signaled the project's first stage would run to Skovorodino, which is only 70 kilometers from the Chinese border in Russia's Amur region. This decision appears to favor Beijing's route south to Daqing.

The pipeline issue illustrates the importance to Tokyo of resolving the territorial dispute if it wants to tap into Russia's extensive energy resources and counterbalance Beijing's growing economic clout in the region.

J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of Global Communications.