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Japan tries to discern whether Russia’s recent move over Northern Territories is trial balloon or pressure

By Tamura Tatsuhiko


President Vladimir Putin’s reference to a new proposal for joint economic activities between Japan and Russia on the four northern islands in dispute has sparked speculation within the Japanese government. While some officials see the reference as a “trial balloon” to assay Japan’s reaction, it may have an impact on the stalled peace treaty negotiations between Japan and Russia. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has not had a face-to-face meeting with President Putin. Attention is being paid to whether a face-to-face meeting will take place at the Eastern Economic Forum to be held in Vladivostok in the Russia’s Far East region from Sept. 2.


On July 26, when Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin landed on the island of Etorofu, while Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu condemned the landing during a press conference, he said, “We take note of President Putin’s remarks [about a new proposal for joint economic activities].” During the Security Council meeting on July 23, the Russian president said he had received “good proposals” from Prime Minister Mishustin to promote investment in the Northern Territories. And Prime Minister Mishustin, who landed on Etorofu, said he will consider setting up a special tariff-free zone and other measures.


Regarding Russia’s intentions, House of Councillors member Suzuki Muneo of the Japan Innovation Party, who advises Prime Minister Suga on the Russia policy, points out that “there has been no progress” on the joint economic activities agreed to by then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President Putin in 2016, and that “Russia is trying to find out whether Japan is really willing to conduct joint economic activities.”


The joint economic activities cover several fields, including tourism and the environment, and as a pilot project, visits by tourists have been conducted. However, “it is not easy to achieve the joint economic activities without undermining the legal framework of both countries,” said a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With the spread of COVID-19, the full-scale commercialization of the joint activities is facing difficulties.


The government is gathering information on the “proposal.” On Aug. 2, Senior Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Yamada Shigeo spoke by phone with Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Morgulov. Depending on the content of the proposal, it could be an obstacle to joint economic activities and peace treaty negotiations, but Russia provided no detailed explanation about the proposal, sources said. “I wonder the proposal is a trial balloon,” said a source connected with the Japanese government. “Japan is seriously working on the joint economic activities, and if there is a proposal from Russia, we can discuss it in the [bilateral] framework,” stressed the source.


In order to move forward with negotiations with Russia, former Prime Minister Abe focused on the importance of the 1956 Joint Declaration by Japan and the USSR, which does not mention the return of Kunashiri and Etorofu islands. Prime Minister Suga has followed suit, but no significant progress has been made.


If the Eastern Economic Forum is held in person, it will be the first opportunity for Prime Minister Suga to meet directly with President Putin. Japan’s political situation is, however, unpredictable with the upcoming House of Representatives election and the LDP presidential election. The prime minister will have to make a difficult decision, because he will be required to achieve a degree of success in his foreign trip amid the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.

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