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Do not put the island on the shelf

Putin's proposal for a peace treaty excited Japan

Do not put the island on the shelf
Photo: Donat Sorokin / VEF, TASS

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
12 September at the plenary meeting of the Fourth Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in response to the appeal of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to show determination in concluding a peace treaty between the two countries, suggested signing it before the end of this year. At the same time, Putin said, no preconditions should be put forward for this. The idea, according to the Russian leader, came to his mind immediately after Abe’s speech. The proposal was not only unexpected for the overwhelming majority of observers, but it seemed that the Japanese Prime Minister himself was taken by surprise. In any case, on the spot, he did not react to the words of his “friend Vladimir”.

However, from Tokyo about the statement of the Russian president immediately followed by an official comment. Yosychide Suga, Secretary General of the Cabinet, made it clear that Putin’s proposal runs counter to Japan’s basic position, which is that the peace treaty must be preceded by a solution to the problem of the “northern territories”. Under them, Tokyo understands the four islands of the southern Kuriles, which came to the USSR as a result of the Second World War, and demanded their return in full strength. For its part, Moscow believes that it owns the islands legally and that Russia's sovereignty over them is beyond doubt.

A sensational, without exaggeration, Putin’s proposal caused a flurry of negative comments in Japan, and Abe himself was criticized at home for his reaction to Putin’s idea. As was to be expected, the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper published next to the disputed islands immediately reacted. On September 14, she published an editorial entitled "Putin Must Abandon His Proposal." The leitmotif of the article is the statement that a peace treaty with Russia cannot be concluded without its returning to the “northern territories”. On the same day, the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun wrote that Japan actually ignored the sudden offer of Russian President Vladimir Putin to conclude a peace treaty this year. At the same time, the newspaper said, opponents of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticized him for his timidity and ineffective behavior in the course of communication with Putin in Vladivostok. At the same time, Asahi Shimbun points to the government’s concern that any answer, regarded as critical of Putin’s proposal, may further “upset the Russian leader and hamper progress in the negotiations between Tokyo and Moscow.”

Shigeru Ishiba, who was Abe’s sole rival in the September 20 election of the chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, criticized his talks with Putin over the “northern territories”. According to Ishiba, Putin has long said that Russia will never return the islands, no matter what economic cooperation Japan promised. Assistant Ishiba said that the Prime Minister in Vladivostok should immediately give a strong response to Putin and remind him of the main position of Japan regarding the peace treaty.

Abe was forced to justify himself in connection with the reproaches addressed to him. After returning to Japan, he met with Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the Komeito party, the LDP's junior partner in the ruling coalition, and commented on Putin’s proposal: “I took it as an expression of Putin’s desire to conclude a peace treaty.” According to Yamaguchi, Abe also said that the Japanese government had not changed its position regarding a preliminary decision on the issue of sovereignty over the "northern territories" before the conclusion of a peace treaty with Russia. Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who was in Hanoi at the time, told reporters that while Putin’s proposal was contrary to Japan’s position, it would be inappropriate to criticize any attempt to conclude a peace treaty.

Asahi Shimbun states that although Abe and Putin met a total of 22 times, only minor progress was made in resolving the territorial dispute. According to the publication, Japanese government officials want to avoid insulting Putin and thereby causing damage to any future negotiations, but at the same time they had concerns about the image of Abe in their own country. The newspaper believes that the criticism of Putin’s proposal will constitute a step back in the Japanese-Russian negotiations, as well as the recognition that the discussions between the two leaders have yielded almost nothing in terms of real results.

During the Russian president’s visit to Japan in December 2016, the newspaper recalls that Abe and Putin agreed on joint economic activities in the northern territories as a step towards resolving a territorial dispute. Asahi Shimbun suggests that Putin’s proposal is a signal that Russia may be dissatisfied not only with the pace of implementation of joint business in the “northern territories”, but also with the rest of Japan’s economic cooperation with Russia.

According to the newspaper, Abe has always tried to portray foreign policy as one of his strengths, so Putin’s proposal provided a fresh excuse for criticizing the prime minister. Opposition parties also criticized Abe’s lack of any counter-arguments to Putin’s proposal. The most drastic statement was made by Kazuo Sii, the leader of the Communist Party of Japan, calling Abe’s reaction a diplomatic fiasco, because, he says, he did not deny or even objected to Putin’s proposal.

On September’s September offer of a large editorial on 14, the Japanese official organ broke out - the Japan Times newspaper. The article has the characteristic title “Putting a territorial dispute with Russia on the shelf is unacceptable." According to the newspaper, the proposal of Russian President Vladimir Putin that Japan and Russia should conclude a formal peace treaty “without any preconditions” by the end of the year reflects the lack of progress in Tokyo’s efforts to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute with Moscow before signing a peace treaty . Given the stalled negotiations on the dispute, the statement can be interpreted as Putin’s call to effectively postpone the scandal around the group of islands from Hokkaido seized by Soviet troops in 1945 - an offer that is unacceptable from the point of view of public sentiment in Japan, or from any strategic point of view. Tokyo should not be given to swing its position with an unexpected remark and it needs to step up efforts to resolve the territorial conflict with Russia, writes Japan Times.

The newspaper believes that Shinzo Abe, who, during his tenure as prime minister, held the 22 summit with Putin, is counting on his close personal relationship with the Russian leader as a lever for advancing bilateral relations. Within the framework of the “new approach” to bilateral relations, Abe sought to expand economic cooperation with Russia, including implementing joint projects on the disputed islands, and creating conditions for improving relations, which opens the way to resolving the territorial conflict.

However, the Japanese official notes, negotiations at the working level between the Japanese and Russian governments on the issue of sovereignty over Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and the group of Habomai islets have not been held since the summer of 2016. During their summit in Vladivostok, Abe and Putin agreed on a road map for creating conditions for joint economic activities on disputed islands, including the development of tourism and the cultivation of marine products, as well as sending the Japanese mission to the islands in October. However, the governments of the two countries are still at a deadlock over a special agreement that would allow Japan to participate in projects on the islands controlled by Russia, without prejudice to their territorial claims from a legal point of view. Russia, which welcomes Japanese investments and technologies for the development of its Far Eastern territories, does not want to agree with such an agreement on the islands.

According to the newspaper, the meaning of Putin’s statement in Vladivostok is not clear. She draws attention to the fact that during the negotiations with Abe on the eve of the forum such a proposal on his part was not heard. Whatever Putin’s motives are, Russia does not seem ready to make any compromise on a territorial dispute. It continues to build military facilities in its Far Eastern region, including the disputed islands. In 2016, Russia launched land-ship missiles on the islands of Kunashir and Iturup. Putin himself continues to maintain a tough stance on the territorial issue. Putin’s latest statement should encourage Tokyo to reconsider its current approach to relations with Moscow in order to advance negotiations on a territorial dispute, Japan Times calls.

The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper of September 14 placed an article entitled “Putin’s proposal for a peace treaty with Japan is shaking Tokyo, as the territorial issue persists.” The article draws attention to the fact that Shinzo Abe intends to win the election of the chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, scheduled for September 20, to become the country's prime minister for the third time in a row. He was going to present his visit to Vladivostok and the meeting with Putin as a great foreign policy achievement and thereby strengthen his position in the election campaign. However, the Russian leader’s sudden proposal for a peace treaty struck Abe because he was driven into a diplomatic corner and could not respond to it.

Shigeru Ishiba, the former LDP General Secretary and Secretary of Defense, in an interview with the same 15 newspaper in September criticized Abe’s tactics at territorial negotiations with Russia. Ishiba, in particular, said that "I never thought that economic cooperation (promoted by the Prime Minister) would lead to the return of the islands." He also questioned Abe’s attempt to solve the territorial problem through the strengthening of personal trust with Putin. Ishiba expressed the opinion that Putin’s proposal was “carefully calculated” and it calls into question everything that was achieved by the two leaders during the past negotiations.

However, regarding the proposal of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Abe said: "We should be open to the message put in (Putin's) words. No one denies that he expressed his opinion about the need to conclude a peace treaty." however, that he himself did not make any policy changes, stating: “Japan still maintains the position that it will resolve territorial issues before signing a peace treaty.” The prime minister indicated that he had communicated this position to Putin before and after he sd Lal its proposal.

The debate between the two Japanese politicians continued with their own eyes, when they met in live televised debates on the NHK channel September September. There, Abe called for calm discussions after Putin’s unexpected statements and reiterated that Japan adheres to the basic position of first resolving the territorial issue and then concluding a peace treaty. Ishiba, for his part, called for refraining from optimism during the negotiations on the northern territories, saying: "Putin’s territorial commitment is extremely strong."

Among other Japanese media, as usual, the most abruptly was the right-wing nationalist newspaper Sankey Shimbun. On September 17, she published an editorial entitled “If Russia does not return the northern territories, Japan should reject the Peace Treaty.” The newspaper believes that now is the time for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to rebuild Japan’s diplomacy with respect to Russia so that the return of territories north of Hokkaido to Japan materializes. The newspaper, not embarrassed in expressions, writes that Putin’s unexpected appeal, aimed at actually postponing the long-standing territorial dispute between Japan and Russia over a group of islands off Northeastern Hokkaido seized by Soviet troops in 1945, should be regarded as nothing nothing but a shameless trick. “Sankey Shimbun” is confident that if a territorial dispute is postponed, then the prospects for demarcating the border between Japan and Russia will not. In her opinion, any treaty that is unable to establish the border between the two countries can never be called a peace treaty.

Considering that Russia was in an economic predicament due to sanctions from the United States and European countries on issues such as the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the publication writes: “The intention behind Putin’s comment this time is crystal clear: to get economic cooperation from Japan, without returning the northern territories under Japanese rule. "

It also has no doubt that this year Putin deliberately timed the Eastern Economic Forum to "East-2018" - the largest war games in the post-Soviet space, in which Chinese troops took part for the first time. Moreover, with his demonstration of military power in the background, in the words of the newspaper, he had the audacity to make a pompous appeal to Japan over the long-standing territorial dispute. According to the newspaper, Putin is simply mocking Japan, offering Tokyo to succumb to his trick.

Further, the mouthpiece of Japanese nationalist circles treats the background of the unexpected proposal of the Russian president: “It is noteworthy that Putin’s remark on the peace treaty sounded just a few moments after Prime Minister Abe, speaking to other leaders at the economic forum, mentioned Japan’s readiness to accelerate the economic cooperation in the Japanese territories occupied by Russia. It was a calculation to shame Prime Minister Abe, and not the idea that “just came to my mind” contrary to Putin’s words to the contrary. ” And further: “It’s only clear that Putin did not buy into the“ new approach ”of Prime Minister Abe towards strengthening mutual trust through economic cooperation and using it to achieve a breakthrough in a territorial dispute.”

The Japanese government has no compelling reason to adhere to joint economic programs with Russia. Japan must ask itself whether current Japanese-Russian economic cooperation projects are really needed. In addition, the feasibility of continuing to implement joint projects should be immediately reviewed. It is time to make it clear to the Russians that they will not win if the issue is not resolved. While the return of the northern territories remains unresolved, full-fledged economic cooperation with Russia is contrary to Japan’s national interests, sums up the Sankey Shimbun.

It should be noted, however, that, despite the hail of criticism in his country, Shinzo Abe intends to continue his previous course towards Russia in the hope that, based on his “new approach” together with “friend Vladimir”, he will be able to resolve the territorial dispute between the two countries and sign a peace treaty. Being confident of his victory in the election of the LDP chairman 20 in September, the Japanese prime minister said that meetings with Putin in November this year at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea and in December at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires will have a big value.
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