ROAR: “Japan’s PMs should not promise to solve Kuril Islands issue”

Moscow and Tokyo are ready to continue cooperation in different spheres, although Japan’s territorial claims still remain the most important obstacle.

Japan’s new Prime Minister Naoto Kan promised on June 11 to actively work to improve ties with Russia. In his speech to Japanese parliament he also pledged to make further steps in solving the main problem in relations with Moscow – the signing of a peace treaty and the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands.

The countries have not signed the treaty because Tokyo considers the four islands off the north east coast of Japan, incorporated by the Soviet Union after the Second World War, its Northern Territories. Analysts believe it will be difficult to solve the issue as Japan wants it because Russia will not give up the islands.

Observers noted that Kan’s statements about the territorial dispute repeat those of his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama, who stepped down recently. The former prime minister had agreed to have three meetings this year with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Vremya Novostey daily said.

The new Japanese leader had promised to study all the details of the agreements between Medvedev and Hatoyama, and described the problem “as very important and having a long history.”

However, the Russian direction is not a top-priority issue for the new prime minister, many observers say. Kan’s election has removed from the agenda his predecessor’s promise to achieve a breakthrough in the Southern Kurils issue “in half a year or a year, and he has not proposed anything instead of it,” Russian Reporter magazine said.

Fedor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global affairs magazine, does not expect any breakthroughs in this issue either. “It is a matter of political prestige, and Japanese prime ministers should not promise anything to solve this issue for the sake of their survival because it is senseless,” Lukyanov told Gazeta.ru online newspaper.

The analyst was rather skeptical about an overall perspective of the new premier. It will be difficult for Kan to return popularity to the cabinet, Lukyanov said, adding that the new leader will have to begin “with a very low point.”

"The split and the lack of outstanding figures in the Liberal Democratic Party will help the Democratic Party, but the inertia of the Japanese political system will inevitably lead to the return of Liberal Democrats to power,” Lukyanov believes.

Kan, however, wants to “rebuild Japan,” Vremya Novostey said. He would also continue to cooperate with Russia in such areas as fighting climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and the energy sphere, said Viktor Pavlyatenko of the Center of Japanese Studies of the Institute of the Far East.

The islands issue will remain on the agenda, the analyst stressed. “Although the new prime minister is considered an emotional man, I think he will restrain his emotions in this issue,” Pavlyatenko told Vremya Novostey.

But if the new government is not able to solve Japan’s economic problems and disappoints voters once again, it may be tempted to “distract people’s attention with claims on the Russian territory,” the daily said. “Russia takes into account the possibility of a negative scenario of the developments on its Far Eastern borders,” it added.

Moscow intends to use Mistral class amphibious assault ships to protect the Kuril Islands, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of General Staff, said on June 8. The purchase of a helicopter carrier from France should boost the combat capabilities of the Navy in the Far East, he believes.

The Mistral is needed “to increase the maneuverability of troops in the Pacific Ocean considering the size of this geographical region and the lack of adequate forces to protect, in particular, the Kuril Islands,” the general said.

Earlier Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin also said that the Mistral class vessels would protect the Kuril Islands and the Kaliningrad Region. “A year after the story with the purchase of Mistral class ships began, the Defense Ministry at last tried to explain clearly why the country and the armed forces need them,” Kommersant daily said.

“We have an issue with the islands in the Far East that, as Japan believes, has not been solved,” the daily quoted Popovkin as saying. “From our point of view, everything has been solved,” he added.

At the same time, Russia is prepared to continue dialogue with Japan on a peace treaty, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in the conversation with his Japanese counterpart, Katsuo Okada.

Okada, who retained the position of the Foreign Minister in the new cabinet, said the Japanese government would continue to promote political and economic relations with Russia.

The Japanese foreign minister made it clear that there would be no changes in Tokyo’s diplomatic policy. Kan is expected to meet Medvedev during a Group of Eight summit meeting in Canada in the end of June.

Analysts stress that Japan’s government has to take into account the position of different political and public organizations demanding the islands back. An association of the parliament’s deputies, which was created in May, supports solving “the territorial dispute” as soon as possible.

The association was created on the initiative of the ruling Democratic Party. Russian parliamentarians consider it as another structure to press Russia on the Kuril Islands issue, Regions.ru website said.

The organization mentioned “illegal occupation of Japan’s territory, a term that was excluded from methodical materials for history teachers", the website said.

Meanwhile, “people’s diplomacy” may offer better methods to improve the two countries’ relations. This year 26 delegations (more than 1100 people) from Japan will visit the Kuril Islands and seven Russian delegations (310 people) will visit Japan.

More than 17,000 Japanese have made trips to the Kuril Islands, and more than 8,000 Russians living in the islands have visited Japan since visa-free travel started in 1992.

Sergey Borisov,
Russian Opinion and Analysis Review, RT