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Japan, Russia mulling joint development of 4 islands as symbol of bilateral cooperation

The Japanese and Russian governments will consider joint development of the four Northern Islands in a wide range of sectors, including fisheries and environmental conservation, in their negotiations on the Northern Territories, serveral Japanese and Russian sources informed Hokkaido Shimbun. Japan wants to draw concessions from Russia by designating the four islands as a symbol of bilateral cooperation in its effort to achieve progress in the territorial talks. The two sides will also consider expanding the framework of visa-free visits to the four islands to accommodate the former islanders’ strong demand to visit them, aiming at reaching an agreement when President Vladimir Putin visits Japan in December. While Russia is positive about joint development, many issues pertaining to the islands’ administration and sovereignty remain, and there is concern that this may result in the strengthening of Russia’s effective control of the islands.

 

The two governments have begun working-level talks on details of possible projects. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Putin may also discuss these projects at their summit meeting in Peru on Nov. 19. It is believed that Abe will decide on whether to go ahead with joint development based on Putin’s position on the return of the Northern Territories.

 

The Japanese government has so far been reluctant to embark on joint development of the four Northern Islands under Russian administration. However, an aide to Abe points out that “no progress can be made in the territorial talks if we persist in the old way. It is necessary for the two countries to shelve the issues of sovereignty over the Northern Territories and delineation of the national boundary and jointly develop the four islands.”

 

One of the projects being considered is salmon and trout farming on the four islands modelled after the bilateral framework on ensuring the safety of Japanese fishing boats in waters near the four Northern Islands, which shelves the issue of sovereignty. Another is cooperation in environmental conservation, a priority issue for Russia in recent years. Japan wants to implement projects without undermining either country’s sovereignty under a special framework not governed by Russian laws.

 

Meanwhile, Russian Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, who visited Japan from late October to early November, had suggested joint development of the four islands under Russia administration. She said: “I hope the two countries will be prepared to engage in joint economic activities in a manner acceptable to both sides.” She hinted at Russia’s willingness to consider a framework that gives consideration to Japan’s position.

 

With regard to visits by former residents to the four Northern Islands, the expansion of the “visa-free exchange program” that allows them to visit without passports or visas is being considered.

 

The Japanese government, while attaching great importance to the Japan-Soviet Joint Communique of 1956 — which provided for the return of the islands of Habomai and Shikotan after a peace treaty is signed between the two countries — in the Northern Territories issue, maintains that the territorial talks need to also include the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu. It intends to demand the implementation of the joint communique while also continuing to use joint development of the four islands as leverage in the negotiations on Kunashiri and Etorofu.

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