The Asahi Shimbun interviewed Akihiro Iwashita, a professor at Hokkaido University, on the Northern Territories negotiations, ahead of Putin’s visit to Japan. Excerpts follow.
Q: What is your take on the status quo of Japan’s territorial negotiations with Russia?
Iwashita: My position is that the reversion of the four islands as a package is impossible. Even if Japan walks back its insistence on the return of the four islands, the Northern Territories issue won’t be resolved quickly. The matter is not that simple. No progress has been made since Russian President Vladimir Putin made an official visit to Japan in 2005. This has been a “lost decade” [on the territorial issue]. Japan was slow in decoupling the return of Kunashiri and Etorofu islands from the overall negotiations. If it had taken this approach ten or 20 years before, it could have gotten back Habomai and Shikotan and moved a step toward regaining control of the other islands.
Q: Putin is supportive of negotiations with Japan. What’s behind his thinking?
Iwashita: His maximum concession is to sign a peace treaty and return Habomai and Shikotan to Japan. That’s his consistent position. That would be the end of negotiations. He regards the Northern Territories negotiations as a means to sell this solution at the highest price possible. Then the question becomes, If Russia agrees to transfer sovereignty of the two islands to Japan, when will that actually happen? Japan and the former Soviet Union signed a joint declaration in 1956 that states the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty, but he is fighting for better terms based on interpretation of the declaration.
Russia has a weak presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries is an impediment it wants to remove. That logic makes sense. Russia perhaps wants Japan to deal with it in earnest.
Q: How should Prime Minister Shinzo Abe respond to this?
Iwashita: To begin with, Japan should withdraw from the sanctions that it has imposed together with the U.S. and Europe on Russia over the Crimean crisis. Things will not move forward unless he does so. Some people in Japan worry that “Russia may receive economic cooperation and give nothing in return,” but no economic aid has been extended yet. Japan should propose the return of the two islands first and offer “leaving [the sovereignty of] Kunashiri and Etorofu as an issue for future discussion.” If Russia accepts this proposal, the [Japanese] public would support it. This would mean that Japan effectively gives up Kunashiri and Etorofu, but the crux of the issue is whether Abe would take the political risk.
Q: How will the upcoming summit meeting develop?
Iwashita: Abe will not be able to give up on Kunashiri and Etorofu. In the first place, when Abe developed a strong interest in the Northern Territories issue, Putin already had the edge and did not need to compromise. Abe probably wants to meet with Putin again next year, but as far as Putin is concerned, he may want to gauge how the next U.S. administration led by Donald Trump will deal with Russia and will also want to size up the prospects for the Abe government. If that is the case, the Northern Territories negotiations will peter out. Just like the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals, which Abe demands be resolved, the issue may hit a snag.