Despite thorough preparations for the recent Japan-Russia summit held in Japan in mid-December, no progress was made in the Northern Territories issue. Sankei Shimbun noted with pessimism, “The summit confirmed that Russia takes a rock-hard stance toward the territorial issue.” On the other hand, Yomiuri Shimbun positively viewed resolutions for concluding a peace treaty expressed by the two leaders as the possible starting point in overcoming bilateral differences.
Besides Sankei, Mainichi and Asahi Shimbun expressed strong concern about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s negotiations with Russia. Mainichi wrote, “The summit made us realize the severe reality, which disheartened our expectation that repeated summit meetings by the two leaders might lead to progress in the Northern Territories issue.” Asahi observed: “While PM Abe focused on concluding a peace treaty associated with the Northern Territories issue, Russian President Putin focused on Japan’s economic cooperation. There remain deep differences between the two countries.”
As a result of the two days’ summit meetings, the two leaders only reached a Northern Territories-related agreement that “the two countries will begin discussions on joint economic activities under a special legal framework” and free access for former Japanese islanders to the disputed territories. On the contrary, the two leaders further made concrete Japan’s economic cooperation with Russia.
Regarding the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, Putin repeated his view that although Habomai and Shikotan Islands will be handed over to Japan, the declaration did not mention which country, Japan or Soviet, would have the sovereignty over the two islands. The president shows no room for discussing the sovereignty over the four islands including Kunashiri and Etorofu. Sankei wrote: “Abe should have Putin first recognize Japan’s sovereignty over the four islands as its inherent territory and demand Russia return the four islands, which should be the basic principle verified by the two countries so as to continue negotiations.”
Sankei and Yomiuri sharply differed over Abe’s remark “No matter how many times the two countries insist to each other that its position is just, they will get nowhere and be unable to resolve bilateral issues.” Out of concern that the remark will undermine Japan’s principle in negotiations on the territorial dispute, Sankei wrote: “Japan should not veer from its stance of adhering to law and justice in negotiations on its sovereignty and territories. China, which plans to capture the Senkaku Islands and change the status quo by force in the South China Sea, is carefully monitoring Japanese negotiations.
On the other hand, Yomiuri noted, “The two countries had better stop table-tennis-like exchanges,” sympathizing with a similar remark made by Putin. The paper continued by saying, “We give the two leaders high marks for compromising with each other and seeking ways to resolve issues realistically in a future-oriented manner, instead of repeating hardline arguments based on their principles.” In this way the paper welcomed the two leaders’ flexibility. The paper added that as both administrations under the two leaders are expected to continue for a long while, “it is important for the two leaders to be patient and continue to have full-fledged dialogues.”
Sankei and Yomiuri also differed over the bilateral agreement on joint economic activities, which Abe called “an important first step toward concluding a peace treaty.” Referring to a similar idea, which was discussed in the past but not realized on account of different legal frameworks between the two countries, Sankei wrote, “We are skeptical whether ‘a special legal framework’ acceptable to both sides can really be realized. On the contrary, Yomiuri observed: “[Whether a special legal framework can be realized] the Japanese government’s wisdom will be tested. If implemented smoothly, such a framework would contribute to building trust between Japan and Russia include the existing Russian islanders.”
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, and Japan, the European nations, and the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia. In line with the West, Japan is in a position to have Russian correct its policy on this matter. Under the circumstances, many countries have pointed out that Japan should be careful about negotiating with Russia. There is another view, however, that against the backgroun of rising China and North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, dialogue between Japan and Russia can benefit the stability of Northeast Asia. U.S. President-elect Trump’s policy toward Russia remains uncertain. It is expected that the environment surrounding Japan-Russia negotiations will frequently change. However, we cannot let the Northern Territories issue drift.