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Prospects for return of northern territories recede

The Yomiuri Shimbun / Prime Minister Fumio Kishida responds to reporters’ questions regarding Russia’s announcement that it was suspending peace treaty talks with Japan on Tuesday at the Prime Minister’s Office.

By Shinji Abe / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer


Russia’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement issued Monday, said it will suspend peace treaty negotiations with Japan. As Russia has unilaterally refused to continue the treaty negotiations, the road toward improving bilateral relations, including in regard to the issue of the northern territories, has become more difficult.


The Japanese government has in recent years tried to build confidence with Russia by advancing economic cooperation, hoping to thereby urge Russia to compromise. With no tangible results thus far, prospects for seeing any progress in bilateral negotiations under the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin have become dimmer than ever.


■ Pressuring Japan


Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke to reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday evening, stressing, “To fully defend the foundation of international order, Japan will take resolute actions in solidarity with the international community.”


The suspension of peace treaty talks with Japan is Russia’s retaliatory action in response to sanctions Japan imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, in line with European countries and the United States. The Putin administration has put pressure on Japan by linking the sanctions with the peace treaty talks.


When Russia annexed Crimea, a southern region of Ukraine, in 2014, Japan did not impose sanctions as harsh as those taken by the United States and countries in Europe. Russia did not take any conspicuous, retaliatory actions against Japan back then.


For Russia, the latest sanctions imposed by Japan were reckoned to be beyond expectation, with the country likely to have taken them gravely.


Russia has seemingly become more resentful of Japan, as Kishida criticized Russia’s aggression in Ukraine during his talks with the leaders of India and Cambodia, both of which he recently visited.


The statement issued by Russia’s foreign ministry said of the treaty negotiations, “We have no intention to continue under current conditions.” However, this can be interpreted as leaving some room for the talks to be resumed in the future.


There is also a possibility of Russia calling on Japan to lift the sanctions as a condition for resuming the talks, assuming that Japan may ask Russia to resume negotiations.


Meanwhile, as Russia put Japan on a list of “unfriendly nations,” a prevailing view on the Japanese side is that Japan “has already taken Russia’s retaliation into account,” as a high-ranking government official put it.


Former Foreign Minister Taro Kono, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, pointed out in the party’s online program on Tuesday that the government was prepared for the suspension of the talks when it imposed its economic sanctions on Russia. Then he said, “We have no choice but to hold talks once again after the Putin administration falls.”


■Joint economic activities


The Japanese government had been using a strategy of pushing forward with negotiations on territorial issues by using economic cooperation as leverage. During the summit talks in December 2016 under the administration of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the two countries agreed to start talks on implementing economic activities jointly on the northern islands. In September 2017, the two countries agreed to embark on five business projects, including sightseeing and garbage treatment, at an early date. An experimental sightseeing tour for Japanese was carried out in 2019, but it did not lead to any full-fledged one.


While Japan has piled up results in the sphere of economic cooperation, it has not eased its attitude toward Russia, as Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said that the present state of affairs is such that Japan would not move ahead with cooperation.


Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda, who is also in charge of economic cooperation with Russia, said, “I will devote myself to dealing with the latest developments, including the sanctions against Russia.”


■ Military activity picking up


There was a time when Japan and Russia, with China’s rise in mind, tried to get closer to each other in the sphere of security, such as by holding a two-plus-two dialogue involving their foreign and defense ministers for the first time in 2013. But the environment has completely changed.


The Japanese side has been on alert, assuming that Russia may reinforce its military buildup in the Far East. Following its invasion of Ukraine, and since the start of this month, Russia has strongly stepped up its military activities, conducting high-performance ground-to-air missile firing drills in the northern territories and elsewhere and repeatedly sailing its naval vessels in waters near Japan. An aircraft believed to be Russian also entered Japan’s territorial airspace above Hokkaido.


When questioned on Tuesday as to the likelihood that Russia would escalate its provocative acts, Kishida told reporters, “We must pay close attention to the situation so that we can respond to various changes in the situation.”

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