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Special economic zone mulled in Northern Territories

The Japanese and Russian governments have been discussing joint economic activities in the Northern Territories since fall last year, it was learned on Dec. 4. This issue is expected to be a main topic in the bilateral summit taking place on Dec. 15-16. According to several diplomatic sources on Japan-Russian relations, the two sides have been discussing the establishment of a special economic zone and joint ventures, as well as expanding the “visa-free exchange” program that allows Japanese nationals to visit the four Northern Islands without a visa. However, Japan is demanding that these steps must not infringe on its sovereignty. There is still a wide gap between the two countries’ positions on legal jurisdiction, so they are having difficulty reaching a consensus in the talks. It is believed that the summit meeting will not result in an agreement on this issue, so the goal is to reach a “basic understanding.”


According to the diplomatic sources, the Russian side asserted at the bilateral vice ministerial talks in October 2015 that discussions on joint economic activities should precede full-fledged discussions on the peace treaty and the territorial issue. The Japanese government also decided to prioritize the expansion of overall relations with Russia, without insisting on progress in the territorial issue. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told President Vladimir Putin that Japan was amenable to the idea of joint economic activities at their summit meeting in Sochi, Southern Russia, last May.


With the two leaders coming to an understanding, diplomats on both sides held vice ministerial talks in June and August. Russia presented a proposal to set up a special economic zone in the Northern Territories, where Japanese and Russian businesses will engage in joint ventures in their economic activities. A proposal to expand the “visa-free exchange” program, which is currently limited to former islanders and academics, to business persons is also being considered.


On the other hand, Japan is demanding special measures with regard to legal jurisdiction in the case of crimes and accidents, where Japanese nationals will be investigated by the Russian authorities, since this will undermine Japan’s claim of sovereignty over the four Northern Islands. After his meeting with Putin on Dec. 2, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida stressed that the “prerequisite” for joint economic activities is that “they must not undermine Japan’s legal position.”


After his meeting with Kishida on Dec. 3, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov maintained that Russian laws should be applied to the Northern Territories. (Slightly abridged)

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