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Russian PM's Kunashiri visit complicates territorial issue

Publication Date : 06-07-2012


There has been absolutely no improvement in the new Russian administration's attitude toward Japan. Consequently, the government should reframe its diplomatic stance toward Russia.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday visited Kunashiri Island, one of the four Russian-held islands that constitute the northern territories off Hokkaido. He said the visit was part of an inspection tour of the Far East, but he claimed: "This is our native land. We will not give away an inch." His remark appears to be aimed at rejecting Japan's demand for the territories' return.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed during a meeting last month to "reactivate" negotiations over the long-standing territorial dispute, but was that agreement actually meaningless? Russia's sudden shrugging off of Japan's claims just when a new relationship was forming cannot be ignored.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba expressed displeasure over Medvedev's visit, saying it "throws cold water on efforts to create a positive atmosphere between Japan and Russia". It is only natural for the government to lodge a protest with Russia, but the fact that the government was unable to stop the visit, despite being aware that it would take place, only shows Japan's feeble diplomatic position vis-a-vis Russia.

Visit's timing suspect

This was Medvedev's second visit to Kunashiri, the first coming in November 2010 when he was president. At the time, the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan was at sixes and sevens over how to respond to collisions between a Chinese fishing boat and Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels off the Senkaku Islands. Medvedev's latest visit coincided with the breakup of the Democratic Party of Japan. Moscow appears to be taking advantage of times of confusion in Japan's administration.

If nothing is done, the northern territories will become more solidly Russian through further infrastructure development and military buildup, pushing the possibility of their return farther away.

It is essential for the Noda administration to regroup and strengthen the nation's diplomacy, basing it around the Japan-US alliance.

The Putin administration has begun to focus more on developing the Far East, establishing a new Far East Development Ministry in May.

Moscow also hopes the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit meeting, scheduled for September in Vladivostok, will provide a venue to attract investment from Asia-Pacific nations.

Trade could be harmed

Putin even indicated during the summit meeting with Noda last month that he hoped Japanese companies would increase investment in Russia. "Trade between Russia and Japan falls short of its potential," he said.

If this is Moscow's true feeling, it should have exercised restraint in Medvedev's visit to the northern territories, because such provocative acts also have a negative impact on Russia.

It is in the mutual interests of both nations to expand cooperation between Japan and Russia in liquefied natural gas and other energy areas.

Japan-Russia ties are also important in facing China, which is increasing its presence through its growing economic and military might.

How will Japan solve the northern territories issue, which is a major obstacle for bilateral relations?

Gemba will visit Russia soon. There is no need for the government to be hasty in resolving the territorial issue. The government must show its determination to break the impasse.


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