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Deep gap emerges between Japan, Russia over territorial dispute

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, speaks to Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, black to camera, during their talks in Moscow, Russia, on Jan. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW -- The first round of negotiations on Japan's Northern Territories and a peace treaty between Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Jan. 14 here revealed stark differences between the two countries, casting a shadow over the future of the talks.

Kono said at the beginning of the discussions that he wants to make the year 2019 "a fruitful and historic one," adding his hope is "to work with Foreign Minister Lavrov to proceed with our efforts." Kono also called for establishing a bilateral relationship that can turn "the substantial potential" between Japan and Russia into reality.


Lavrov, however, maintained a tough stance, making it difficult for Kono to find middle ground. The top Russian diplomat said that the Northern Territories, claimed by Japan but held by Russia, were obtained by Russia as a legacy of World War II and their possession is approved by the United Nations.

Japan sees the possibility of winning the return of at least the smaller two of the four islands off the northernmost Japanese prefecture of Hokkaido -- Habomai and Shikotan. The transfer is stipulated in the 1956 Japan-Russia joint declaration, and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in November 2018 to carry out future negotiations based on the 1956 pact.

Yet even this option has many hurdles to clear, including how to treat the current Russian residents of Shikotan Island. Abe told a TV Asahi program aired on Jan. 1 that a compromise "has to take a form that is convincing and acceptable to Russians about the change of attribution (of the islands from Russia to Japan)." This remark suggests accepting the Russian residents' right to live on the island for the time being.

Abe's statement triggered a harsh rebuke from Moscow. Russia's deputy foreign minister lodged a strong warning with the Japanese ambassador to Russia on Jan. 9. Labeling Abe's comments as "unacceptable," Lavrov told reporters that he severely warned Tokyo over the matter. Russia apparently is considering the option of only offering administrative right -- not sovereignty -- over the two islands and thus didn't like Abe's expression of "change of attribution."

Another hurdle is compensation for former Japanese residents of the territories. Tokyo maintains the position that their right to seek redress for damage caused by Russia's illegal occupation still stands. Russia, however, thinks that the country obtained the islands legally and there is no basis for compensation. The Japanese side considers the option of having the former residents give up their redress right and Tokyo compensating them instead.

After the ministerial meeting, no joint press conference was held and the foreign ministers talked to reporters separately. While the Japanese side said there was no plan for a joint press event, the Russian Foreign Ministry explained that the Japanese side refused to have one.

--- Security issues are high hurdles to clear

Lavrov told reporters after his meeting with Kono that he had informed the Japanese side that he will not discuss the sovereignty of the islands. "These are Russian territories," said the top Russian diplomat.

Russian leaders have brought up their views on the historical background of the four islands, as well as their national security concerns, in connection with the Northern Territories since around last fall, indicating that they need to be cleared to sign a peace treaty with Japan. These issues are likely to be taken up by the Russian side in future negotiations.

By insisting that the territories are their rightful possessions, the Russians want to justify their control over the islands even if they decide to hand over Habomai and Shikotan islands, according to people familiar with their thinking. Moscow also intends to demand Japan distance itself from the United States amid a worsening relationship between Moscow and Washington, they added.

Russia expects Japan to present its comprehensive stance, including its view on the historical issue, when Abe meets Putin in June in Japan.

For Russia, the Northern Territories were won by the Soviet Union, its predecessor state, from Japan even though the occupation of the islands took place after Japan's official surrender to the Allied Forces, including the Soviets, with the acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. Accepting a deal tantamount to denying such a historic view is not acceptable to Russia, according to experts. That is why Russia is now demanding that Japan recognize the Northern Territories as Russian territories, even though such a statement is not included in the 1956 joint declaration, which is currently the basis for the territorial negotiations.

Another issue of concern for Russia is if U.S. forces would be deployed to the returned Habomai and Shikotan islands. Moscow wants a guarantee in writing to prohibit such a deployment. According to former Russian ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov, a draft treaty considered by Russia in the early 1990s contained a statement that one of the signatories would not cause damage to the other by keeping an alliance with a third country. It is not clear if such an indirect reference to U.S. forces stationed in Japan is acceptable for both Japan and Russia. The two sides are expected to engage in tough negotiations over this issue.

Lavrov told the Jan. 14 press conference that Russia is confident that Japan will follow its national interests and make a decision as the level of independence of Japan, which is dependent on the U.S., is questioned. This remark seems to suggest his intention of requiring Japan to directly engage with Russia.

(Japanese original by Muneyoshi Mitsuda, Political News Department, and Hitoshi Omae, Moscow Bureau)

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