13 April 2012, 18:36

Russia, Japan entering new stage of Kurils dispute

Russia, Japan entering new stage of Kurils dispute

Chair of the Japanese Democratic Party’s Political Council Seiji Maehara is set to visit Moscow from April 29 to May 4 to discuss a range of territorial issues with Russia’s Foreign Ministry and the Federal Assembly.

Chair of the Japanese Democratic Party’s Political Council Seiji Maehara is set to visit Moscow from April 29 to May 4 to discuss a range of territorial issues with Russia’s Foreign Ministry and the Federal Assembly.  Coming ahead of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as President, this visit can initiate a new round of talks on the disputed sovereignty of the Kuril Islands.

Seiji Maehara is a former Foreign Minister of Japan, who last year vied to head the country’s leading Democratic Party, a tenure which is largely regarded as a springboard for the Japan’s Prime Minister post. In his visit, the Japanese politician is obviously going to explore the ground under Vladimir Putin’s pledge to resume territorial talks, which both encouraged and baffled the Japanese.  

At the March 2 meeting with editors-in-chief of leading Western newspapers, Putin referred to the Kuril islands dispute, saying that the two sides, like judoists, should show resolve in making steps towards each other to reach a compromise, not just to win. “It’s a kind of ‘hikki-waki,’ meaning a ‘draw’,” he said.

“If we want a hikki-waki, the two islands isn’t enough,” editor-in-chief of the prominent Asahi Shimbun newspaper Yoshibumi Wakamiya parried, obviously referring to the Soviet promise to give Japan two of the four disputed islands under the Declaration of 1956.

“Let’s do it this way,” the Russian President-elect answered, “When I’m sworn in, we’ll bring our foreign ministries to the negotiating table, place them opposite each other and command: ‘Hajime!’ which stands for ‘Begin!”

Putin stressed that his stance on the territorial conflict hasn’t changed, at the same time signaling to the Japanese he was open to “defrosting” the Kurils talks that had been stalled for ten years.

This announcement hasn’t slid under the radar of Tokyo, prompting Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba to declare in early May that he was set to pay an official visit to Russia to revive the negotiations. In another interview, Gemba also confirmed the possibility of Prime Minster Yoshihiko Noda following in his steps.

The Japanese Prime Minister was also the first to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his reelection. The two counterparts are now likely to exchange their views on the bilateral ties during the upcoming G8 summit in Camp David.  Might be, Seiji Maehara’s visit is in fact designed to pave the way for a smoother talk between the two leaders.

In its turn, Moscow wants Tokyo to prove it is ready to compromise. When speaking to Vladimir Putin, a Japanese journalist took upon himself the trouble of explaining what Japan believed to be the matter of dispute. According to him, the islands of Khabomai Rocks and Shikotan, a gift lavishly given by then Soviet leader Nikita Khryshchov to Tokyo, already belong to Japan. Thus, the two sides must now focus on Iturup and Kunashir, the islands whose sovereignty the Japanese are all too eager to compromise on. NobignewsforRussia here.

And it won’t be, the US weighs in.

That’s the conclusion US Ambassador to Japan James Zumwalt made in May 2009 on the heels of Prime Minister Putin’s visits to Tokyo. In his secret cable, leaked by Wikileaks, Zumwalt said: “Unofficially, Japan lacks a plan to negotiate the return of the Northern Territories and a leader to step up and see the plan through… This policy vacuum extends to the main opposition DPJ, which Embassy Tokyo academic experts confirm has not developed a detailed and serious policy position on Russia or the Northern Territories. Unfortunately, most Japanese academic debate about the Northern Territories is mired in tired, decades-old debates about the nuance that exists between the 1956 and 1993 declarations, "angels on the head of a pin"-type arguments which have no practical application to finding a solution to the Northern Territories problem today.”

Speaking about public opinion, the US diplomat stressed that “leading academics from Keio and Aoyama Universities confirm… that public opinion, while still not allowing for any dramatic concessions, is placing less value on the need for a quick resolution to the Northern Territories issue.”

The account of how the Japanese themselves see the Kremlin’s stand on the Kuril problem presented in the embassy cable is no less interesting.

“Despite such setbacks, MOFA officials consistently tell Embassy Tokyo, with confidence, they believe President Medvedev has the political will to resolve the Northern Territories issue and is eager to address the problem. However, the Foreign Ministry assesses, perhaps naively, the Russian President is not being adequately briefed by subordinates on working-level talks carried out to support Medvedev's initiatives, and that the Russian leader often appears to be ill-informed about developments,” Ambassador Zumwalt writes.

It’s noteworthy that the Japanese are pinning their hopes on a new Kremlin host, whose arrival would settle all disputes ex aequo et bono, that is in Japan’s favour. That was the case with Gorbachev, then Yeltsyn, and later Putin. That was also the sentiment two years ago, when the Japanese naively, as the US Ambassador remarks, hoped that Dmitry Medvedev would break the vicious circle.

Ambassador Zumwalt draws the following conclusion: “Embassy Tokyo assesses as small the chances for a dramatic breakthrough in the Northern Territories dispute. A resigned acceptance of the status quo, combined with a lack of leadership on the issue, will prevent the two nations from either reaching any substantive new accommodation to improve bilateral relations or, conversely, to risk increased tensions by raising contentious issues.”

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