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Japan-Russia impasse over N. Territories shakes Tokyo's peace treaty scenario

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono ( right, Mainichi) and Russian foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (AP)

MUNICH, Germany/MOSCOW -- Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov failed to bridge the gap between the two countries over their historical perceptions regarding the sovereignty of four Russian-held islands off Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, during their meeting in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 16.

The meeting was the second of its kind between the two ministers toward the goal of signing a bilateral post-World War II peace treaty. It came as tensions rise between the United States and Russia over their pullout from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which could adversely affect Tokyo's territorial negotiations with Moscow. Amid piles of challenges, Tokyo has been pressed to review its strategy of reaching a broad treaty agreement in June, when Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Japan.

"I received a tremendous welcome in Moscow. I often use the cuffs I was presented with at the time," Kono said at the outset of his meeting with Lavrov at the Russian consulate general in Munich, pointing to the cuffs the Russian foreign minister had given to Kono during their previous talks in January.

"The trade value between Japan and Russia is on the rise. The number of Russian visitors to Japan increased more than 20 percent from the previous year," Kono said, emphasizing the favorable economic ties enjoyed by the two neighboring countries lately. In response, a smiling Lavrov said he was looking forward to holding talks with Kono, thus heading into the meeting in an amicable tone.

However, the friendly atmosphere apparently did not last throughout the 90-minute talks. Kono and Lavrov clashed head-on over the Japan-claimed four islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai and Shikotan off Hokkaido, differing sharply in their historical perceptions of the sovereignty of the isles.

At a press conference following the meeting, Lavrov reiterated Moscow's position that the four islands came under Russian control legitimately. Tokyo, on the other hand, has claimed that the islands are Japan's inherent territories and that they were illegally occupied by the Soviet Union.

During his post-meeting press conference, Kono did not elaborate on the details of the bilateral talks, but acknowledged that he and his Russian counterpart failed to find common ground over the territorial row. "There were heated exchanges when we were negotiating with our respective national interests on our shoulders," he said.

In November last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Putin agreed that the two countries would accelerate negotiations over the Northern Territories based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration, which stipulates that the Habomai and Shikotan islands would be returned to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty.

Tokyo eyes having the two smaller islands of Habomai and Shikotan returned to Japan and launching joint economic activities on the larger Kunashiri and Etorofu islands, in hopes that the "two-island plus alpha" solution would make it easier for the two countries to settle on the return of Habomai and Shikotan islets.

The Japanese government has recently withheld from openly expressing Tokyo's basic position on the Northern Territories in order to avert a showdown with Moscow over their historical views. Kono told reporters, "Negotiations are steadily making headway." However, Russia has not backed down an inch.

Another source of concern is the rift between Russia and the U.S. over the INF Treaty. In early February, Washington declared to Moscow that it was pulling out of the Cold War-era accord, sparking a similar move by the latter. Amid rising tensions, Russia has blasted the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system that Japan is purchasing from the U.S. as being convertible into offensive weapons in violation of the INF Treaty.

Abe and Putin have agreed to sign a peace treaty during their tenure, which will last until September 2021 for Abe during his presidency over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and until May 2024 for Putin. As the Russian leader has a longer term left, an individual familiar with Japan-Russia relations said, "If Japan becomes desperate, then Russia will take advantage of it, possibly demanding greater concessions than Tokyo expects."

At a news conference following the Feb. 16 bilateral meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov emphasized that it is necessary for Japan to accept the outcome of World War II, including Russia having the sovereignty over all of the Kuril Islands, which encompass the Northern Territories. Lavrov had made a similar remark at the time of his first treaty talks with Kono in January.

Lavrov's latest statement apparently came out of consideration for growing domestic sentiment against Moscow handing over the disputed islands to Tokyo. While maintaining a hard-line stance, the Putin administration is also eager to attract Japanese technology and capital into Russian soil amid economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in southern Ukraine in March 2014.

Russia has been struggling with a sluggish domestic economy, with real income on the decline. Although preliminary GDP figures for 2018, released earlier this month, indicated a 2.3 percent increase from the previous year, some in the country have called the accuracy of those figures into question.

During a TV appearance in late January, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that Moscow should sign a peace treaty with Tokyo, calling it an important partner in the Far East and expressing eager interest in Japan's investment and technology.

It now remains to be seen whether President Putin will refer to a bilateral peace treaty during his state of the nation speech scheduled for Feb. 20.

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

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