Japan fails to seal deal with Russia due to Islands dispute

Tokyo has refused to sign a protocol on Japanese-Russian economic cooperation in what is seen as a protest against President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent visit to the disputed Southern Kuril Islands.


The signing of the memorandum was initially to take place at the bilateral investment forum being held in Tokyo on Friday – on the eve of the Russian leader’s visit to Japan for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The non-binding document was to affirm the sides’ continued economic partnership and development of investments.

The Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said that the delayed signing of the protocol is not linked to Medvedev’s visit to the Kurils.

However, earlier, Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Akihiro Ohata hinted that the row over the islands was linked to the decision.

"The issue of northern territories is very important. The actions of the Russian president encroach on the thoughts and feelings of the Japanese about these lands," he said at a parliament meeting on Friday, cites Itar-Tass.

In addition, Ohata – who was expected to take part in the Russian-Japanese forum – did not show up at the event. His deputy was present instead. Ohata’s Russian counterpart, Elvira Nabiullina, left the forum shortly after her opening speech, reports RIA Novosti.

Despite the absences, the investment forum, attended by CEO’s of both Russian and Japanese major businesses as well as governors of several Russian regions, was deemed quite a success.

Meanwhile, Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan are planning to meet on the sidelines of the APEC summit, according to the Russian president’s spokeswoman Natalia Timakova.

"Currently the schedule is being agreed," she said. It is planned that the development of Russian-Japanese relations will be at the core of the talks. Timakova also noted that Japan traditionally raises the Kuril Islands issue at such meetings.

"Russia's stance on this issue is immutable," she stressed.

The long-running dispute between Moscow and Tokyo over the status of the Southern Kurils – known as the Northern Territories by the Japanese – has sparked a fresh diplomatic tiff following Medvedev’s visit to the island of Kunashir on November 1.

However, the head of Russia’s Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, Mikhail Margelov, believes that the tension between the two states stirred up by Medvedev’s trip to Kunashir, has now decreased.

"The Japanese ambassador returned to Moscow just ahead of the Russian president's visit to South Korea and Japan. This means only one thing in diplomatic language: tensions in bilateral relations will not be fanned further, if in Japan's opinion the incident is not fully exhausted," he told Interfax.

He expressed confidence that nothing can hamper the meeting between Medvedev and Naoto Kan. He also said that "nothing can and must hinder the continuation of Russian-Japanese dialog and the development of cooperation".

According to Margelov the “Northern Territories” issue has now turned into Japan’s domestic policy tool.

“Indeed, a territorial problem is important for the island state. But it is also important that his issue does not obstruct strategic thinking,” he is quoted as saying. “One should move forward, as if one keeps his head turned backwards, he may fall. I really hope that our Japanese partners will not stumble in bilateral relations," Margelov added.

The Kurils – a volcanic archipelago – stretch across the Pacific Ocean from the Japanese Hokkaido northwards to Kamchatka. While the chain includes over 50 islands, just four are the subject of a 60-year-old row between Moscow and Tokyo: Kunashir, Shikotan, the Khabomai Rocks and Iturup. All of them are under Russian rule, but Japan insists the islands are part of its southernmost territory.

Japan rests its claims on a bilateral agreement of 1855, in which the disputed territories were considered to be Japanese. Russia maintains, however, that it took over the islands after World War II in accordance with international agreements. As a result of the ongoing dispute, a peace treaty between Japan and Russia – the legal successor of the Soviet Union – has not yet been signed.

In the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, that re-established diplomatic ties between the sides after the war, Moscow promised Japan two of the islands – Khabomai and Shikotan. However, that could only happen after the signing of the peace treaty. Tokyo though has repeatedly insisted that it should regain all the islands.