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Survey of newspaper editorials on forthcoming Japan-Russia summit

By Tsugumasa Uchihata


Expectations are high for progress in the Northern Territories negotiations ahead of the first official visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 11 years in mid-December. Japan has spelled out its economic cooperation plans for Russia. However, there are widespread doubts now following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement after his meeting with Putin in Lima, Peru, that achieving progress “will not be so easy.”


Abe and Putin agreed on the visit during their meeting in Vladivostok in September. Newspapers expressed optimistic views then. Nikkei wrote, “We take this as a good opportunity to make progress in the Northern Territories talks,” while Mainichi Shimbun said, “We have entered the stage where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategy of meeting frequently with Putin for discussions will be put to the test.” Nikkei also argued for the importance of building pipelines connecting Japan and Russia for diversifying energy sources.


Japan has come up with concrete economic cooperation proposals, such as support for urban development in the Far East, which could be regarded as “incentives” in the territorial talks. Yet no breakthrough was made in the territorial issue at the Lima meeting, which was held close to Putin’s visit. This prompted Nikkei to adopt a more sober tone, stating “it is probably not that easy to move the Northern Territories negotiations forward.” It took a more cautious stance, noting that “while it is perhaps inevitable for Japan to go ahead with some economic cooperation projects first to prod Russia, which has effective control of the islands, proposing more projects and investments in a short period of time in an attempt to seek an early solution will only be exploited by Russia.”


Mainichi observed that “the mood might have subtly changed,” citing two factors behind the change: first, Japan’s strategic value for Russia has diminished in light of the pending turnover of the U.S. administration; and second, internal strife in the Russian leadership as strongly indicated by the sudden arrest and sacking of the cabinet member in charge of economic cooperation with Japan. It is doubtful if Putin will be able to defy the pressure of the hardliners and make a decision to resolve the territorial issue.


All newspapers showed a certain degree of appreciation for Abe’s great determination to resolve the Northern Territories issue and his strategy of using the personal relationship of trust between leaders as leverage in working for a breakthrough.


In addition, Sankei Shimbun called for vigilance against Russia and questioned the government’s overzealousness in economic cooperation. It asked if Putin is indeed trustworthy. In his news conference in Lima, Putin asserted Russia’s sovereignty over the four Northern Islands and said that he discussed “joint economic activities” on the four islands with Abe. Commenting on this, Sankei wrote: “The four islands are an integral part of Japan’s national territory and sovereignty over these islands cannot possibly belong to Russia, which is occupying them illegally. Until an agreement is reached on the sovereignty and the return of the islands, joint economic activities will only strengthen Russian control.”


Yomiuri Shimbun published these comments: “The chances for making progress in the territorial talks do not look good. Japan has failed to achieve the return of the four Northern Islands during the 70 years since the end of World War II and there is still strong opposition in Russia to the islands’ return.” It continued: “It is not reasonable to expect massive economic cooperation without making any concessions on the territorial issue. If Mr. Putin is hoping to achieve greater results through his visit to Japan, he needs to make serious efforts to move the territorial issue forward.”


Asahi Shimbun noted that there is a yawning “gap” between Japan, which hopes for the return of the Northern Territories, and Russia, which prioritizes economic cooperation. It emphasized that the territorial negotiations “need to be balanced with cooperation with Western countries, with which Japan shares the universal value of rule of law.” Asahi went into a discussion of Russia’s act of changing the status quo by force in its annexation of Crimea, referring to the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by Japan, the U.S., and the European countries.


The Japan-Russia summit during Putin’s visit will take place in Abe’s hometown in Yamaguchi Prefecture. This will be the 16th meeting between the two leaders. No matter how many times they meet, the only possible position for Japan is the return of the four Northern Islands.

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