Lagos, Nigeria?s economic hub. Photo: Hans Wilschut/Lagos Photo Festival
Lagos, Nigeria?s economic hub. Photo: Hans Wilschut/Lagos Photo Festival

Despite Japan’s resolution to make headway on island dispute and take steps toward signing a peace treaty with Russia, a breakthrough in the feud still remains some way off.

It was no great surprise for most political watchers here as both sides had prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two-day visit to Japan unequivocally stated that their fundamental stances on island dispute had not shifted.

At issue are four islands off Hokkaido, called Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai in Japan and known as the Southern Kurils in Russia.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has frequently said that he is eager to resolve the dispute with Russia, although Moscow also equally insists on its sovereignty over the four islands.

In an interview prior to his trip to Japan with the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and Nippon TV, Putin said that “the absence of a peace treaty is an anachronism,” but went on to mention the complexities of the issue.

According to the interview, Putin said he considers the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which stipulates the transfer of two islands — the Habomai islets and Shikotan — to Japan to be “rules that should be put into the foundation of a peace treaty.”

As for the other two islands’ transfer, he said there remain “too many questions about this issue,” and that returning all four islands to Japan would be going outside the bounds of the 1956 declaration.

For Japan’s part, it has long insisted that its sovereignty over all four of the disputed islands be confirmed before a peace treaty is signed.

“Abe needs to make some dramatic concessions to Putin to reach an agreement on the islands,” Takashi Kawakami, president of the Institute of World Studies at Takushoku University, said of the issue.

Yet both sides agreed that large scale joint economic activities on the islands could be conducted without undercutting either side’s claim to sovereignty.

During the visit, Abe and Putin oversaw the signing of a flurry of deals in economic-related sectors by their governments and businesses.

Such joint economic cooperation, the leaders believe, could lay the foundation for enhanced economic and diplomatic ties and thereafter theoretically could create a future “atmosphere” in which the territorial dispute and peace treaty could be tackled.

But, analysts also pointed out that the road ahead in this regard remains tricky as the isles have strategic value for Russia, guaranteeing its navy access to the western Pacific, while top of Japan’s security agenda is always the United States.

The latter is a point of contention Putin has recently raised with Abe, regarding the growing U.S. presence in Asia. Russia believes that certain moves on Tokyo’s part, such as its missile defense system, is disproportionate to perceived regional threats.

Moscow’s takeover of Crimea in March 2014 and subsequent sanctions imposed by Western countries and Japan, have also clouded relations between Tokyo and Moscow and caused a planned trip by Putin in 2014 to be postponed.

In his interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun and Nippon TV, Putin was highly critical of Japan’s sanctions against Russia and said these would be “a clear hindrance for peace treaty negotiations.”

In addition, the future of diplomatic ties between Japan and the United States remain unclear under the incoming administration, which has already shown amiable signs toward Putin.

“In this transition period, nothing solid will come out of the Abe-Putin meeting,” said Takashi Inoguchi, professor emeritus at University of Tokyo and an international affairs specialist.

The pairs’ meeting concluded with the island row still up in the air, but two sides reached an array of economic agreements which center on cooperation in the energy sector and the development of the Russian Far East.

Plans include Japan being allowed to join in the development of natural gas fields in Russia’s Gydan Peninsula, cooperation between the two countries’ health ministries in the fields of medicine and healthcare, cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear power, and enhanced cooperation in agriculture and fisheries, among others.

Analysts said it remains to be seen how the actual territorial spat will pan out henceforth and whether boosting joint economic mechanisms can really pave the way to creating a diplomatically conducive environment for both countries to sign a peace treaty amid future geopolitical uncertainties. Enditem

Source: Jon Day, Xinhua/


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