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Former FM: Stepping into Putin’s ring is risky bet for Japan

Interviewed by Hiroyuki Ishida


The following is an interview with former Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba.


Question: What do you think of Prime Minister Abe’s stance toward Japan-Russia negotiations?


Former Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba: Japan has been adhering to the conventional policy of “dealing flexibly with the timing and manner of the actual return [of the four northern islands] under the condition that our country’s sovereignty over the four northern islands is confirmed.”  The policy has been announced on the Cabinet Office’s website and I mentioned the policy when responding to questions in the Diet as foreign minister.


But the prime minister only says, “[Japan] will sign a peace treaty after resolving the issue of the attribution of the four northern islands.” It is a clear policy change and he needs to explain it. Failure to respond to a request for an explanation of the main point of engaging in negotiations means that he hasn’t upheld his responsibility to provide explanations to the Diet and the public.”


Q: Aren’t there some things that cannot be disclosed during negotiations?


Gemba: Of course I’m fully aware that there are diplomatic secrets. But [the prime minister] has been excessively timid. Not saying “Japan’s sovereignty over the four northern islands” explicitly is like going into it with the concessions already made. It also carries the risk of weakening our negotiating position.


Q: Japan is planning to accelerate the negotiations based on the Japan-Soviet joint declaration.


Gemba: That means Japan has stepped into President Putin’s ring. The joint declaration mentions only the Habomai group of islands and the island of Shikotan out of the four northern islands. So currently it is very likely that Japan and Russia will finally settle on the two islands. When I was a foreign minister, I read all of the details of the meetings between successive Japanese prime ministers and President Putin leading up to 2012 and felt that Putin was willing to cede the two islands. On the other hand, he will never give up the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu. Continued discussions will not be held on them either.


The term “the theory of two islands first” has taken on a life of its own. It means that the islands of Habomai and Shikotan will be returned but discussions will continue on the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu. If that really happened, I would have nothing but praise for the diplomatic victory. But the chance of it becoming a reality is close to zero.


Q: The prime minister has vowed to put an end to the Northern Territories issue.


Gemba: I think he wants his name to be listed in the history textbooks just for achieving the return of the two islands. I can also say that he took a risk and went on the offensive. But he also seems to be trying too hard to achieve results quickly. I can’t accept a conclusion in which the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu, which are obviously Japan’s territory, become Russian territory. This is a sovereignty issue and related to the country’s dignity. Such a conclusion would also create problems in the future.


It’s not certain whether Russia can remain strong forever. The country could become weak 10 to 20 years from now. We would have a good chance of getting the four islands at that time. We could plan to establish the best possible negotiating position and passing the baton to the next generation.


Major opposition parties insist on “two islands first”


The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) are insisting on the advance return of the islands of Habomai and Shikotan.


During a speech on Nov. 18, CDPJ leader Yukio Edano said: “We can accept the return of the two islands first, but can’t accept the return of the two islands alone. We should never give up our country’s sovereignty over the four islands.”


DPFP leader Yuichiro Tamaki made a proposal to Prime Minister Abe during the Diet interpellations at the Lower House on Oct. 29. He said: “The advance handover of the two islands should be materialized if [the Japanese government] can get an assurance [from Russia] that signing a peace treaty will not put the territorial issue on ice.” Tamaki is also calling [on the Japanese government] to win an assurance from the U.S. that it will not station its military on the four islands when they are returned to Japan.


Meanwhile, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) insists that the 1945 Yalta Agreement signed by the U.S., the U.K., and the Soviet Union in 1945, which includes the “handover” of the Chishima Islands, is invalid. The JCP is suggesting that Japan should ask for the return of all of the Chishima Islands, including Minami Chishima — the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu — based on the “principle of no territorial aggrandizement,” which was the Allied Powers’ policy on postwar settlement.


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