Japan and Russia to set stage for tricky peace treaty talks

  • There is speculation Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be prepared to resolve the status of only two of four disputed islands in a major policy shift
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2019, 11:11am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2019, 10:20pm

When Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov meet on Monday, they will face the difficult task of smoothing the way for their leaders to advance bilateral peace treaty negotiations.

The meeting in Moscow is exactly two months after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in Singapore to accelerate talks towards concluding a peace treaty to formally end second world war hostilities based on a 1956 declaration that mentions the transfer to Japan of two of four islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the war.

But the prospects of resolving the disagreement over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido are far from certain, and the talks will be a test of the two ministers’ diplomatic skills.

The upcoming ministerial meeting, including a working lunch, is intended to lay the groundwork for another Abe-Putin summit to follow later this month.

Settling the decades-long dispute over the islands – called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia – is a top diplomatic priority for Abe, who has held dozens of talks with Putin so far.

“I hope to advance talks with President Putin as much as possible,” Abe told reporters on Thursday during his visit to Britain.

Abe’s mention of the 1956 joint declaration has fuelled the view that he will focus on the handover of Shikotan and the Habomai islet group – a change from Tokyo’s conventional policy of trying to resolve the status of all four islands, including Etorofu and Kunashiri.

Kono has been tight-lipped about Japan’s future strategy even as Russia issues what political experts see as verbal warnings before any substantive start has been made.

Most recently, Russia accused Japan of “distorting” the essence of the agreement between Abe and Putin to speed up the negotiation process based on the 1956 accord and of “misleading” the general public in both countries.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov summoned on Wednesday Japan’s ambassador to Moscow, Toyohisa Kozuki, and protested recent remarks by Japanese officials over the disputed islands.

Such comments include Abe’s remark that Russian residents on the disputed islands need to understand the islands’ territorial status will change and their lives will improve by living alongside Japanese people. He also said the year 2019 will be a “major turning point” in the peace treaty negotiations.

In another development, a Russian lawmaker has submitted a bill to prevent parliament from approving the transfer of the Kurils to Japan.

James Brown, an expert in Japan-Russia relations, said the two countries are closer than before because of the agreement to negotiate on the basis of the 1956 agreement, which he called a “big step”.

But Brown, an associate professor at Temple University’s Japan campus, doubts Russia’s sincerity about making a breakthrough as it seems to have a set of conditions that need to be fulfilled such as Japan’s recognition of Russia’s legal right to all four islands.

The Soviet Union seized the islands following Japan’s 1945 surrender in the second world war and Japan has maintained that they have been illegally occupied. The territorial issue was not solved even after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has said Tokyo should recognise the outcome of the second world war, including Russia’s sovereignty over the islands.

Another major challenge is for Japan to address Russia’s concern about the possibility of a future US military presence on the islands, according to experts.

Lieutenant General Jerry Martinez, commander of US Forces Japan, told a recent press conference that the United States has no plans to put US troops on the islands “right now”.

“I’m hopeful that there will be a constructive output … between those two world leaders and that they will find a way to come to a resolution, to resolve that long-standing problem,” Martinez said.

Abe has already explained to Putin the importance of the Japan-US security alliance, which serves as the basis of Japanese foreign and security policy.

Still, Putin, in his press conference in December, questioned the level of Japan’s sovereignty as reclamation work to relocate a US airbase within the southern island prefecture of Okinawa continues despite local opposition.

Under the new framework, Japan hopes to break a deadlock that has continued despite a series of joint declarations issued with Moscow and decades of bilateral talks, with Abe determined to show this time will be different.

The situation appears to be in Abe’s favour with no opposition from the United States under President Donald Trump and only limited resistance at home to pursuing the peace treaty talks with Tokyo’s current approach, according to Brown.

“But there remain too many obstacles and I’m not convinced that Russia would really want a deal because of the lack of advantages that Russia gets,” he said.