The difficulty in dealing with Russia surfaced again. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to achieve further progress in peace treaty negotiations, but they failed to make concessions on the Northern Territories issue. It is regrettable that expectations for the return of the islands withered.
This was the second Japan-Russia summit since Prime Minister Abe and President Putin met in November and agreed to accelerate peace treaty negotiations based on the Japan-Soviet joint declaration. The territorial issue was expected to move forward in some fashion, as the 1956 document states that Habomai and Shikotan Islands will be returned to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty.
But the joint press conference held after the summit revealed that Russia is trying to shelve the Northern Territories issue.
At the press conference, President Putin spent much of his time stressing the need for Japan’s economic cooperation and attracting more investment from Japan.
On economic cooperation, meanwhile, he showed his recognition that “no qualitative change is taking place.” Based on this, he noted that [Japan and Russia must] “secure the mutual and long-term development of their bilateral ties at a qualitative level” to deal with the signing of a peace treaty and indicated that the expansion of economic cooperation is imperative to move forward territorial negotiations.
On the Japan-Soviet joint declaration, he also noted that the document “first of all stipulates the signing of a peace treaty,” and made no reference to the handover of the islands.
Russia is dealing with Japan as if it took the four islands hostage. That negotiation style is impermissible. The Japanese government must uphold its basic policy of signing a peace treaty after the resolution of the territorial issue. At the same time it also needs to conduct an in-depth analysis of what Russia has in mind to prepare for the next round of the Japan-Russia summit, which will be held in Japan in June.
Prime Minister Abe aims to resolve the territorial issue before his term as president of the Liberal Democratic Party ends in September 2021. He probably wants to leave as a legacy the resolution of the Northern Territories issue. President Putin, who will stay in office till 2024, views Abe as in a rush to achieve results. If his posture is provoking the Russian leader to act aggressively, Abe must alter course.
It does not make sense either that some LDP members hope to dissolve the Diet for a double election with the Upper House race in the expectation that Japan-Russia negotiations will make headway. Foreign policy must be separated from domestic politics.
Prime Minister Abe and President Putin have thus far met 25 times. During the latest summit, Putin showed Abe around his office inside the Kremlin to highlight their personal relationship of trust. It is irritating to see that their close ties are not contributing to the deepening of mutual trust between the two nations and moving forward their negotiations.