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Japan to defer broad agreement plan over peace treaty talks with Russia

The Russian-controlled Northern Territories are seen off Cape Nosappu (bottom left) on the Nemuro Peninsula of Hokkaido in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun aircraft on Jan. 30, 2019. In the center are the Habomai islets, while Shikotan Island is seen in the background at right and Kunashiri Island in the background at left. Etorofu Island is barely visible in the back at the center.

TOKYO -- The Japanese government has decided to forgo a plan to reach a broad agreement with Russia over peace treaty negotiations at a June summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as the two countries have yet to enter concrete talks over the disputed islands off Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, it has been learned.

The move was disclosed to the Mainichi Shimbun by multiple sources close to the Japanese government on April 17. While Tokyo had been seeking to strike the basic accord when Putin visits Tokyo in June, it has yet to launch negotiations with Moscow over the settlement of the territorial dispute amid a wide gap in perception between the two parties over the sovereignty and history of the Russian-controlled four islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai and Shikotan.

The Japanese government is aiming to break the impasse by building confidence with Russia through joint economic activities on the Northern Territories. Yet related talks between the two countries are bound to be drawn out.

At a press conference on April 17, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga dodged a question about the prospect of Japan and Russia reaching a broad treaty agreement in June, saying, "For me to mention the matter outside the negotiating table would adversely affect the talks."

Although Suga emphasized that Prime Minister Abe and President Putin share a firm determination to put an end to the territorial dispute during their tenure, there are apparently no prospects for any progress to be made in the territorial row in the next two months ahead of the June summit as Russia continues to maintain a hard-line stance over the issue.

"We have not given up on coming to a broad agreement in June, but it has effectively become difficult," acknowledged a senior Japanese government official.

At a meeting in November last year, Abe and Putin agreed to accelerate negotiations based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which stipulates that the islands of Habomai and Shikotan would be returned to Japanese sovereignty after a bilateral peace treaty had been signed.

The Japanese government has sought to resolve the territorial dispute by promoting a "two islands plus alpha" solution, which combines joint economic activities on Kunashiri and Etorofu islands and the return of the smaller Habomai and Shikotan islets. Based on the scenario, the government had envisaged to see Abe and Putin arrive at a broad agreement over the matter during a summit to be held on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka in June.

However, during meetings between Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in January and February, Lavrov pressed Japan to accept Russia's sovereignty over the four islands and the historical perception that those islands legitimately came under Russian control as a consequence of World War II. As Tokyo has claimed that the islands are "Japan's inherent territories," the chasm between the two countries was only left to widen.

Tokyo and Moscow are in talks to hold a foreign ministerial meeting in Russia as early as mid-May. However, an individual close to the Japanese government warned, "There is a strong domestic backlash in Russia over any return of the Northern Territories (to Japan), and it has become difficult for Moscow to advance negotiations."

(Japanese original by Yu Takayama and Shu Furukawa, Political News Department)

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