4 July 2012, 23:05

South Kuril solution may lie in Moscow-Tokyo energy agreement

South Kuril solution may lie in Moscow-Tokyo energy agreement

Attempts by Moscow and Tokyo to resume talks on the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands are likely to fail.

Japan has violated the agreement not to make harsh statements on the territorial issue reached on June 18 during the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on the sidelines of G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.

In response, Moscow loudly reminded that the South Kuril Islands that Japan has claims to are an integral part of Russian territory.

On the eve of the presidential elections, Vladimir Putin relayed that he was ready to resume negotiations with Japan over the territorial issue to foreign journalists – among which was a Japanese reporter. “Let’s do the following,” Putin announced, “When I become the president we will get our Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the one side and the Japanese ministry on the other and give them an order of ‘hajime’ (‘start’ – Ed.),” he said while talking to the Japanese reporter.

It did not go unnoticed in Tokyo. At the end of April, one of the leaders of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan Seiji Maehara paid an unofficial visit to Moscow. In May in Tokyo, a meeting between the chairman of the State Duma Sergei Naryshkin and the Japanese prime minister was held. A preliminary exchange of opinions was completed with the summit of the two leaders in Los Cabos, Mexico.

Commenting on its results, presidential aide Yury Ushakov told the journalist that there is understanding that further dialogue should be carried out in a calm and constructive atmosphere, and attempts to influence the discussion with the public and frequently emotional statements should be avoided.

Clearly, the subject is very sensitive. It is not hard to gain points with public statements inside the country, and it is even easier to wreck the dialogue as it happened many times before. Both Moscow and Tokyo understand that very well. However, the agreement to be restrained survived just for one week.

After the cabinet meeting, Secretary General of the Japanese Cabinet Osamu Fudzimura while talking to the press commented on the possibility of Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the disputed islands. According to Sakh.com website, “This would contradict Japan’s position,” the Japanese official said.

Moscow reacted at once. “The South Kuril Islands are an integral part of the Russian Federation. The comments from abroad regarding the transportation of the Russian government in the territory of their own country are at least inappropriate,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement published last week.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited the South Kuril Islands during his trip to the Far Eastern Federal unit. The prime minister accompanied by a number of cabinet members said, “The islands are an important part of the Sakhalin region and an important part of the Russian land. We have been doing it before (note: developing the territories) and naturally this practice will be continued by the new cabinet,” said Medvedev.

Tokyo’s reaction was rather quick too. “Medvedev’s visit of Kunashir pours cold water on our relations,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba as the Japanese Foreign Ministry issued an official protest. After such a clash, the Japanese foreign minister’s visit scheduled for the end of this month seems unlikely.

Nonetheless, both Russia and Japan are interested in closer relations. Naturally, Moscow would like to use the advantages of its energy diplomacy in Asia as this is what is happening in Europe. Pipelines connect countries stronger than dynasty marriages. On the other hand, that might give Moscow the chance to show to intractable buyers of Russian oil and gas in the Far East, primarily China, that there appears a clear alternative in the region – the huge Japanese energy market.

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan is experiencing a systemic energy crisis. All reactors that generated over a third of Japan’s electricity were shut down. This week one reactor has been restarted due to seasonal restrictions on energy consumption. The restart has caused protests, which became yet another headache for the ruling Democratic Party, which is currently going through either a scandal or a split So far the role of nuclear power in the energy balance of the country cannot be restored.

The alternative is to increase gas imports. Political instability in the Middle East and increasing tension on Southeast Asian sea routes enhance the competitive advantages of Sakhalin gas fields, while discussions on the future Sakhalin-3 project have been started. Russian-Japanese talks on building a plant to liquefy gas in the Far East have been resumed.

It is quite obvious that Putin and Noda have topics for discussion at the APEC summit in Vladivostok this September. Judging by Lavrov’s statement, Moscow is not going to turn the brawl over the territorial issue into an ongoing process. “We have to move toward a peace treaty not through renewed protests - whether reasonable or not – but through implementation of earlier reached agreements on bilateral cooperation in various fields,” Lavrov said at the press conference on Tuesday.

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