The foreign ministers of Japan and Russia huddled July 28 in the Russian resort city of Sochi and agreed to continue negotiations on the thorny Northern Territories issue.
It was agreed that the two government leaders would continue to discuss the issue.
Even though the Japanese and Russian positions on the four disputed islands northeast of Hokkaido are practically irreconcilable, we would like Russia to see that reaching a resolution would richly reward both partners.
Vladimir Putin had been eager to improve relations with Japan even before his return to the presidency in May. He met with Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba and reaffirmed his resolve to seek a mutually acceptable settlement.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Japan's objections over Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Kunashiri Island in early July, and stated that top Kremlin officials will continue to visit the islands. Lavrov stood by his hard-line position that the four islands "became Russian territory as a result of World War II."
Since Russia is steadily tightening its effective control of the islands by building airports and industrial facilities there, it is only natural for Japan to suspect that Putin's real motive for improving bilateral relations is not to resolve the dispute per se, but to lure the capital and technology needed to develop the Russian Far East and Siberia.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that after settling its border dispute with China four years ago, Russia delineated its disputed maritime border with Norway last year. Then, in mid-July this year, Russia also resolved its maritime border dispute with Ukraine.
In each of these cases, Russia focused on the economic merits of cooperating with its neighbors on resources development and other matters by making concessions on territorial rights and other interests.
Resolving the dispute over the Northern Territories is rendered difficult by a complex interrelation of elements that trace their origins to the Cold War era and further back to the interests of the Allies at the end of World War II.
Still, we need to keep watching Putin's diplomacy carefully, as he has proven himself capable of making territorial concessions if they serve Russia's interest. But ultimately, the only way to determine Putin's real intentions is through negotiations.
As symbolized by China's phenomenal growth into an economic and military powerhouse, the Asia-Pacific situation is changing rapidly. Disputes over territorial rights and interests in the South China Sea and North Korea's nuclear ambitions pose major obstacles to the reinforcement of economic ties that Russia seeks in this region.
If Japan and Russia fall in step in various areas, including navigational safety, both countries will have a great deal to gain. The next Japan-Russia summit, slated for September in Vladivostok, will be the first important occasion for discussing this.
Japan must go to the summit fully prepared to make this the start of extensive talks.
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 31
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