Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed on a new framework to negotiate on the return of Japan’s Northern Territories and the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries. The foreign ministers of both countries will be responsible for the talks, and their top deputies will serve as the negotiators.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono is the grandson of former farm minister Ichiro Kono, who was involved in preparations for the 1956 joint declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union, Russia’s predecessor. The younger Kono’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, has been in his position for 14 years and has lengthy experience of negotiating with Japan. These two figures will handle the political aspect of the upcoming discussions.
The negotiators, meanwhile, will try to draft a treaty consistent with international law or past relevant accords and make sure that the two sides are on the same page on the interpretation of the text.
The prime minister will attempt to advance the talks under this setup, visit Russia in January next year and reach a broad agreement with Putin when the Russian leader visits Japan in June 2019 to attend the Group of 20 summit of major countries and regions.
This arrangement, however, is rash. Past territorial negotiations have been riddled with repeated advances and setbacks as it was not easy to settle the many issues involved.
The Japanese and Russian leaders have agreed to negotiate based on the 1956 declaration, which states Moscow will hand over two of the four Northern Territories — Habomai and Shikotan — off the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido after signing a peace treaty with Tokyo.
Once the islands are returned, Japan should naturally assume their sovereignty, but the Russian side has not made its position clear on this issue. Moscow has even refused to talk about the remaining two larger islands — Kunashiri and Etorofu — and is worried about the possible deployment of U.S. forces to returned territories.
Japan insists that the territories are its own land, while Russia argues that they were demarcated after the end of World War II.
Breaking this confrontation and drafting a text expressing the settlement is no easy task. One cannot imagine that everything will be resolved in a mere six months.
Right after the G-20 summit next year, a House of Councillors election is scheduled. If Prime Minister Abe intends to boast his diplomatic achievements for the election, Russia will take advantage of that.
The premier reportedly proposed to Putin to demilitarize the Northern Territories. If demilitarization, including ensuring the absence of U.S. military bases there, is put on the negotiation table, it may adversely affect Japan’s ties with the United States.
In addition, Abe and Foreign Minister Kono have even refrained from stating Japan’s traditional stance on the Northern Territories, such as seeking the confirmation of the attribution of all four islands, as well as calling the Russian presence on those territories an “illegal occupation.” The government explains that its restraint is part of its negotiation tactics, but consideration for Russia clearly stands out.
A vague interpretation of a peace treaty, or a major concession to the Russians would make its ratification by the Diet a difficult process. Pushing this negotiation based on a political calendar is a perilous endeavor.