How will the way be paved to resolve the issue left pending since the end of World War II? It is important for the government to assess the international situation with a cool head and proceed with negotiations on the northern territories from a medium- and long-range perspective.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East for their first bilateral talks since June and the 27th overall. The two leaders have confirmed a policy to continue negotiations with a view to resolving the territorial dispute. They have also agreed to promote joint economic activities planned on four islands off Hokkaido that have been held by Russia.
In regard to the joint economic activities, which will be conducted with funds provided by Japanese and Russian companies, garbage disposal and sightseeing tours will be undertaken on a trial basis on the four islands. These are part of activities to build confidence between the two countries.
The prospects for territorial negotiations, which are the most essential, have not been ascertained yet. In their meeting last November, Abe and Putin decided to accelerate consultative talks for conclusion of a peace treaty based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Union Joint Declaration that called for the return of two of the four islands — the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan — to the jurisdiction of Japan. But the negotiations between the foreign ministers of the two countries have had rough going.
The negotiations stalled due to the stubborn stance taken by the Russian side. It has insisted that Japan admit the four islands legitimately became Russian territories as a result of World War II. Russia has expressed concern repeatedly about the possibilities of U.S. military bases being built on either of the islands following their return to Japan.
Build constructive ties
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made an inspection tour of Etorofu Island last month. His visit to the island cannot be overlooked because it represented an act to bolster control of the island disputed in territorial talks.
Following the nullification of the U.S.-Russia treaty to ban Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), Washington has expressed a plan to deploy missiles in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia is poised to counter such a move. It can be said that the environment has not been ready for Russia to make concessions to Japan on the territorial issue.
The important thing is to analyze the regional security environment calmly in search of an acceptable strategy.
Russia stations military troops on Etorofu and Kunashiri islands, on which it has deployed surface-to-ship missiles. However, Russia has not stationed troops on the Habomai group of islets or Shikotan, where border guards are assigned for the purpose of maintaining public safety. The military value for Russia of Habomai and Shikotan is likely different from that of Etorofu and Kunashiri.
Tokyo and Moscow need to promote cooperation in the security sphere through such channels as consultative talks of foreign and defense ministers of the two countries. Deepening the relationship of trust by enriching maritime disaster rescue training between the Self-Defense Forces and the Russian military will be effective in proceeding with territorial negotiations.
It is essential to develop the Japan-Russia relationship from a multifaceted viewpoint by taking advantage of the good personal relationship between Abe and Putin.
China has increasingly been engaging in hegemonic behavior backed up by its military might. If Japan is able to build a constructive relationship with Russia, it will serve as a check on China. The government must persistently explain to the public the significance of a Japan-Russia peace treaty to obtain their understanding more broadly.