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Return to “expanded equilibrium” approach to Northern Territories, says expert

The Sankei Shimbun interviewed Shigeki Hakamada, Professor Emeritus at Aoyama Gakuin University and the University of Niigata Prefecture, on how Japan should engage with Russia and the Putin administration. (Interview conducted by Masashi Nakamura.)


Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin that their two nations resolve the Northern Territories issue and conclude a peace treaty during their terms of office. The party that puts a time limit on diplomatic negotiations is at a disadvantage. Putin has no intention of compromising, and it will be very difficult to proceed with negotiations.


Japan has repeatedly given way to Russia on the basis of its one-sided hopes. Japan proposed a new approach to resolution based on economic cooperation, but Russia understood it as a proposal to shelve the territorial issue and build economic cooperation.


Japan and Russia agreed in the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration that Habomai and Shikotan Islands would be handed over to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. After further negotiations, both countries confirmed in the 1993 Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia Relations that the “possession issue of the four islands is unresolved.”


Putin acknowledged the above but suddenly declared in 2005 that the four islands comprising the Northern Territories became Russian territory as a result of World War II and that he will “not discuss the issue.” Japan did not object resolutely to his statement. During diplomatic negotiations under the Abe administration, the situation further regressed to the discussion of “returning two islands” based on the Joint Declaration. Russia’s 2020 constitutional reforms enabled Putin to have a long-term regime. The reforms prohibited Russia from ceding territory to a foreign nation and made the proposal of such an idea a criminal offense. These reforms can be said to be a show of intent targeted at Japan.


Abe is highly praised for his diplomatic policy, and it heightened Japan’s presence among the G7 leaders. In terms of its Russia policy, however, the Abe administration destroyed a consensus that had been built on many years of painstaking effort. Suga should understand this reality.


The Japanese government’s fundamental principle is that “the four islands of the Northern Territories are historically and legally Japanese territory.” The basic policy for Japan’s negotiations with Russia is based on the Tokyo Declaration, namely, to “resolve the possession issue of the Northern Territories and conclude a peace treaty.” Japan should return to the “expanded equilibrium” approach which states that both territorial negotiations and economic cooperation should be developed in concert with each other.


The issue of sovereignty is not only an issue of a nation’s dignity but a vital issue as an independent nation. The world is observing Japan’s posture closely. If Japan fails to take this issue seriously, it may cause a chain reaction with grave results in Japan’s diplomacy and security. Japan should engage in the negotiations in earnest and not be overly optimistic.

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