Russian-Japanese summit: island issue takes a back seat

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi arrived in Moscow on Thursday on an official visit. On Friday he is to have talks with Vladimir Putin. A Russian-Japanese top-level political dialogue, whatever may be said by politicians and diplomats of both countries, is above all firmly associated with the "northern territories" issue - or in simpler words - who owns four South Kuril islands. Obviously, Koizumi's current visit will add nothing fundamentally new to this dispute, but this, it seems, now suits both Moscow and Tokyo.

Today, as 50 years ago, Tokyo's official position on border demarcation is that the USSR occupied the four South Kuril islands /Kunashir, Habomai, Iturup and Shikotan/ illegally, and they must be returned to Japan. Russian diplomats have invariably rejected such an approach, insisting that the USSR received the islands under the Yalta and other agreements, which created the basis for postwar settlement.

No one can say how many lances have been broken over the postwar period concerning who actually is the lawful owner of the islands. In addition, resort is being made to arguments calling for justice - historical ones: who was the first to map them, develop them and start taking a tribute from the indigenous people. Or geographic ones - whether South Kurils should be considered a continuation of the Kuril Archipelago, or it is an independent group of islands, thus determining the interpretation of a number of international agreements connected with the postwar settlement.

These disputes have sometimes reached such a pitch that official representatives of the two countries, when preparing an agreement on the protection of birds of passage, for a long time could not decide what to do with a small bird which nests on South Kurils but winters in Japan's Hokkaido. Things with Far Eastern cranes were understandable, but this little bird, from the Japanese point of view, migrates within one country. It cannot be a bird of passage. Such a status of the bird, recorded on paper, appears to erode Japan's official position on the issue of border demarcation.

But this is only an external and occasionally funny aspect of the problem, which indeed in no small way determines the full normalization of relations between Russia and Japan. And to unclog it, both Tokyo and Moscow have more than once taken rather energetic steps.

In 1956, when concluding with Japan the first and so far the sole full-fledged political treaty - a so-called joint declaration - the USSR agreed to hand over /hand over, not return, we stress/ to Japan two of the four disputed islands - Habomai and Shikotan. For Moscow and for Tokyo it was a serious compromise at the moment. True, with a reservation - after the conclusion of a peace treaty, which never materialized.

Attempts, not particularly highlighted, to go beyond formal polemics: "return the islands" - "the territorial issue does not exist" - were taken in the era of Brezhnev, under Gorbachyov, under Yeltsin and under Putin. Japan's former prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1998 made a proposal to Yeltsin, which was revolutionary in those times - in exchange for recognizing Japan's sovereignty over the disputed territories to keep them under Russian jurisdiction for a time. This proposal was turned down, but it was clear evidence of a desire to find a way out of the "territorial blind alley".

Japan's evident interest in energy resources of the Far East and Siberia, a desire to use Russia's capabilities in solving international problems, for example, of the Korean peninsula, is objectively compelling Tokyo to seek chances for expanding cooperation with Moscow. Officially, Japan abandoned linking development of relations with Russia with the solution of the territorial issue in 1997.

What then is pushing Russia to dialogue on this problem? First, economic interest. It existed both at the time of the Empire and the USSR and it exists now. Japan is the world's second economic power, and this sums it all up. Second, Japan is the next-door neighbor, and non-conflict relations with neighbors have been and remain a cornerstone of the foreign policy and security of any state. Third, Russia and Japan are Group of Eight partners, and territorial friction existing between states jointly called upon to solve key problems of civilization looks out of place and anachronistic. And finally the Russian law "On the State Border" prescribes the country to legitimate under international law the borders with those states with which this has not yet been done. Russia has no legally formalized border with Japan.

The paradox, however, is that with both countries interested in the development of relations, the territorial issue defeats any solution in the foreseeable future. Objectively, neither Moscow nor Tokyo can back down from their position - domestic and foreign political harm with territorial concessions is now unacceptable to them. This is why "no prospects are to be seen" to the solution of the territorial problem, the Russian Foreign Ministry says ahead of Koizumi's visit.

What do the sides intend to undertake in these conditions? In June of last year, in the course of the Putin and Koizumi meeting at Kananaskis at the Group of Eight summit, the Japanese suggested that during their premier's visit an action plan should be adopted, aimed at developing relations in every sphere. Moscow gave its consent. In the course of subsequent negotiations it was decided to develop relations in six areas - international cooperation, economics, security, etc. The problem of a peace treaty was not ignored either. And, in all probability, during Friday's talks in the Kremlin the Russian and Japanese leaders will agree "to actively continue a search for mutually acceptable solutions" in this field.

As is noted at the Russian Foreign Ministry, the plan in this respect does not go beyond the framework of earlier understandings. And "activity" and "mutually acceptable solution", to judge from everything, are seen in each capital with different eyes, but this allows developing relations in those fields which bear on real national interests of the two countries.

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