The leaders of Japan and Russia, both judo black belts, have signaled their readiness to make a fresh start in bilateral negotiations to solve the long-standing territorial dispute over the Northern Territories off Hokkaido.
This important opportunity should be used to set the stage for constructive, long-term talks to settle the dispute and deepen cooperation between Japan and Russia in the Far East.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on June 18 to re-energize the stalled negotiations over the Northern Territories. The meeting, held in Mexico on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit, was the first between the two leaders since Putin regained the Russian presidency in May.
Immediately after Japan was hit by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March last year, Putin, then prime minister, announced a set of measures to provide relief aid to Japan, including an emergency supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
In March this year, Putin expressed his intention of seeking a solution to the territorial dispute that is acceptable to both sides. One of the judo terms he used was “hikiwake,” which means a tie or draw.
Putin’s attitude toward the issue represents a radical departure in policy from that of his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, who created great tension in Japan-Russia relations by visiting Kunashiri, one of the disputed islands.
Putin’s efforts to mend Moscow’s strained relationship with Tokyo are apparently motivated by his desire to tap Japan’s capital and technology for the development of the Russian Far East, notably Siberia, which is one of his government’s policy priorities. Putin is also keen to expand cooperation with Japan to counter China’s rapidly growing influence on neighboring countries and surrounding areas.
Putin’s return to the presidency has improved the diplomatic climate for bilateral talks over a thorny issue that has long hampered closer ties between the two nations.
But it is not clear what Putin meant by “hikiwake.”
Is he seeking a solution to the dispute based on the 1956 joint declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union, which only committed Moscow to transferring control of two of the islands--the Habomai islets and Shikotan--to Japan? Or is he willing to address also the issue of sovereignty over the two other islands--Kunashiri and Etorofu?
There are various interpretations of Putin’s remarks among Japanese policymakers.
Japan first needs to figure out his real intentions through careful and patient talks. Then, the government should map out a detailed and effective diplomatic strategy for achieving its goal of resolving the question of sovereignty over all the four islands and concluding a peace treaty with Russia.
Besides the territorial dispute, however, there is a long list of other issues that Tokyo and Moscow need to discuss.
First of all, it is important for the two countries to enhance their cooperation for stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, especially the Far East.
Two key challenges for such bilateral efforts are how to ensure that China will act as a stabilizing factor in the region and how to denuclearize North Korea.
Energy cooperation between Japan and Russia would do a lot to support Japan’s efforts to abandon its nuclear power generation.
Currently, economic cooperation between the two countries mostly concerns LNG projects in the Far East.
Japan might as well give serious consideration to Russia’s proposals concerning the construction of natural gas pipelines and power transmission lines.
But the dispute over the Northern Territories inevitably makes Japan nervous about stable supplies of energy from Russia.
Putin should understand that settling the issue is vital for full-scale cooperation between the two countries.
There has been no official visit to Russia by a Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi went there in 2003.
The quick succession of short-lived governments in Japan in recent years due to instability in domestic politics has led to a troubling dearth of contacts and communication between the leaders of the two countries.
Japan needs to develop a long-term strategy for dealing with Russia that will survive changes of government at home.
--The Asahi Shimbun, June 21
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