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Attention focused on moves toward resolving Japan-Russia territorial dispute

Japanese Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, left, and Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin sit during a ceremony in Moscow on Oct. 19, 1956, to sign the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. (Mainichi)

Oct. 19 marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956 mentioning a resolution of the dispute over the sovereignty of the Northern Territories and the signing of a peace treaty. Growing attention is now focused on whether moves toward these issues will gain momentum.

    Both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin have expressed enthusiasm about resolving the territorial dispute and signing a peace treaty. The two leaders are endeavoring to make achievements toward these matters at two summit meetings to be held by the end of this year.

    Still, there are no prospects that Tokyo and Moscow can reach a compromise over the issue because the two countries remain far apart.

    Late last year Abe asked New Party Daichi leader Muneo Suzuki, who has close relations with some prominent figures in Russia, for cooperation in breaking the deadlock over the territorial dispute.

    "I'd like to move Japan-Russia relations forward by all means, would you please cooperate with me," Abe told Suzuki at the prime minister's office on Dec. 28, 2015.

    Suzuki's proposal that two of the four Russian-held islands -- the Habomai group of ilets and Shikotan Island -- be returned before settling the dispute over the two other larger islands -- Kunashiri and Etorofu -- is inconsistent with the government's position to demand that the four islands be returned simultaneously to Japan's sovereignty.

    Regardless, the prime minister has exchanged views on the issue with Suzuki seven times since late last year.

    Abe and Putin will meet in Lima, Peru, in November and again in the prime minister's hometown of Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on Dec. 15.

    At a House of Representatives plenary session this past September, Abe expressed enthusiasm about settling the territorial dispute.

    "I would like to exchange frank opinions in a quiet environment at the December summit meeting to advance bilateral negotiations with the goal of settling the dispute over the sovereignty over the four islands and signing a peace treaty," the prime minister told the session.

    Speculation is spreading among the government and ruling parties that the prime minister will make concrete achievements toward that end in the December summit talks and take advantage of the momentum to dissolve the lower house for a snap general election.

    However, some skeptics highlighted differences between Japan and Russia over the issue.

    "Japan attaches importance to the Northern Territories issue, while Russia places top priority on materializing bilateral economic cooperation. As such, it's no easy task to coordinate views between the two countries," said a source close to the government.

    "There's growing speculation in Japan that the islands will be returned quickly, but Russia is formidable. Excessive expectations are placed on a resolution to the dispute," said a senior official of the Foreign Ministry.

    Japan is also aiming to use a possible resolution to the territorial dispute to keep China and North Korea in check as the security environment in East Asia is rapidly worsening. There is no sign that Japan-China relations will improve because of conflicts over the South China Sea and East China Sea situations. China and Russia are strengthening their military cooperation, and Japan is using an eight-point plan on cooperation with Russia, including energy development in the Far Eastern area, to drive a wedge into military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.

    Russia has a strong influence on North Korea. Prime Minister Abe told a Diet session that Japan is "urging Russia to negotiate with North Korea in a bid to prevent Pyongyang from going ahead with its missile and nuclear development."

    Japan is becoming closer to Russia apparently because of Abe's personal attachment to the country.

    In his book, Prime Minister Abe wrote that his father, former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, urged then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to visit Japan. The prime minister was accompanying his ailing father, who met with Gorbachev when he visited Japan in April 1991.

    The prime minister has close ties with Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who in 2006 mentioned the possibility that half of the four islands in terms of land area will be returned to Japan, and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who said in 2013 that three of the islands should be returned.

    As such, observations are growing that the prime minister will flexibly make a decision on a resolution to the territorial dispute.

    Since the beginning of this year, President Putin has reiterated that the Japan-Soviet joint declaration is the only legal document that both countries' legislatures ratified, hinting at his willingness to seek a final resolution to the territorial issue.

    This appears to be because Prime Minister Abe appears in Putin's eyes to be a powerful leader who has expressed extraordinary enthusiasm about settling the territorial dispute and is supported by the public.

    Russia, which has been alienated by Western countries over the Ukrainian issue, has been seeking to establish close ties with China. By establishing close ties with Japan to achieve a balance with its ties to two Asian neighbors, Russia is aspiring to establish an influential position in the region.

    At the same time, Russia has intensified its claim that the Northern Territories became part of the Soviet Union following World War II.

    Since he became president in 2000, Putin has admitted that the 1956 declaration is effective.

    However, as Japan subsequently began to demand that Russia confirm that the four islands belong to Japan and effectively refused to resolve the issue under the 1956 declaration, Russia stiffened its stance toward the issue.

    However, as Moscow has recently repeated the significance of the 1956 declaration, speculation has been prevalent among Russian intellectuals that Moscow is aiming to settle the territorial issue by returning two of the islands.

    Regardless, analyst Anatoly Koshkin said, "Even if both countries' leaders agree to settle the dispute based on the 1956 declaration, it's impossible that two of the islands will be immediately returned to Japan."

    He said he believes it is impossible to apply the declaration to the issue, noting that there was no concept of exclusive economic zones, nuclear-powered submarines or powerful U.S. bases in Japan when the statement was signed.

    Russia is highly likely to ask for bilateral negotiations on development of fisheries and underground resources development around the two islands and the establishment of rules on measures aimed at preventing Russia's security from being threatened.

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