By Tsugumasa Uchihata
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to achieve concrete progress in the Northern Territories issue in their summit held in Osaka. To reach a basic agreement on the signing of a peace treaty, which includes the resolution of the territorial issue, the Japanese government was making several concessions, such as holding back its conventional position to call for the “return of the four islands.” Yet Russia maintained a hard-line approach. Sankei and Asahi urged the government to review its negotiations with Russia from scratch.
Sankei wrote: “Japan made false assumptions about what Russia has in mind and pandered to Russia by distorting its basic principle of the return of the four islands.” It concluded that “Abe fought windmills as we had just anticipated” and argued that the return of the four islands should be the precondition for dramatically improving the Japan-Russia relationship. “Japan must stress this point to Russia and start negotiations anew,” it said.
In November 2019, Abe and Putin agreed to accelerate bilateral negotiations to sign a peace treaty based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration. Japan effectively changed course to focus negotiations on the return of Shikotan and Habomai, not clinging to the return of the four islands. With Japan and Russia engaging in a number of talks at ministerial and other levels, Japan stopped referring to the four islands as “being an integral part of Japanese territory” and mentioning that these islands are “unlawfully occupied by Russia.” The language of Japan’s sovereignty of the four islands also disappeared in the Diplomatic Bluebook, an annual report on national foreign policy published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Osaka summit between Abe and Putin was held against this backdrop. But the two leaders only agreed to confirm they will continue negotiations on the signing of a peace treaty. On this, Sankei asserted: “Japan received zero response from Russia. Moscow demanded Japan accept Russia’s sovereignty of the four islands, arguing that the Japan-U.S. security treaty is an obstacle to Japan-Russia negotiations.”
In September 2019, Putin abruptly proposed “signing a peace treaty without preconditions.” Asahi analyzed that Putin’s intention was to shelve the territorial issue and criticized Abe for “making the critical mistake” of interpreting this as Putin’s enthusiasm for signing a peace treaty and shifting the policy focus to the return of the two islands. It demanded the “Abe government accept this failure in a humble manner and review its negotiation approach.”
Meanwhile, Mainichi showed some understanding for Abe’s approach. It analyzed that the government must have envisaged it would be more realistic to “change the policy focus to the return of the two islands to persuade Russia to soften its stance.” But things did not develop as the government had expected. On this point, the outlet speculated that “Russia probably had little choice but to play hardball as Putin’s popularity is sagging due to the economic slowdown and people who oppose the return of the four islands staged protests.” But when it comes to negotiations on the Northern Territories, Mainichi took the same stance as Sankei and Asahi, urging the government to “rework a comprehensive strategy.”
Japan and Russia agreed in May 2016 to a “new approach,” which prioritizes building mutual trust through economic cooperation for the time being in their territorial negotiations. Since then Japan has been promoting economic cooperation projects with Russia, though it is subject to tough sanctions from the U.S. and Europe. Yomiuri and Nikkei refrained from criticizing this approach by the Abe government. Yomiuri wrote that “it would not be easy to settle issues that have been left unaddressed since the end of World War II,” and Nikkei wrote that the “government needs to improve trust in the realms of economy and security.” The outlets urged the government to tenaciously work with Russia.
The Abe government has not clearly said whether it will seek the return of four or two islands. This approach caused a dispute between Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono and Sankei. Kono criticized Sankei’s July 2 report entitled “The Foreign Minister does not have the return of four islands in mind” as “fake news.” Later he apologized to the outlet for his remarks. Sankei asserted in its editorial dated July 5 that “the government should clearly explain to the public the core principles of its negotiations with Russia.”
Soon after the Japan-Russia summit was held, a surprise meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un took place at the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula. The poor outcome of the Japan-Russia summit was overshadowed by this eye-catching international development.