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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
On September 12, at a plenary session of the Fourth Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in response to an appeal by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to show determination in concluding a peace treaty between the two countries, proposed signing it by the end of this year. At the same time, Putin said, there should be no preconditions for this. The idea, according to the Russian leader, came to him immediately after Abe's speech. The proposal not only came as a surprise to the overwhelming majority of observers, but, it seems, caught the Japanese prime minister by surprise. In any case, on the spot, he did not react in any way to the words of his “friend Vladimir”.

However, an official comment immediately followed from Tokyo on the statement by the Russian president. Cabinet Secretary General Yoshihide Suga has made it clear that Putin's proposal runs counter to Japan's basic position that a peace treaty should be preceded by a solution to the Northern Territories problem. By them, Tokyo understands the four islands of the southern Kuriles, which passed to the USSR as a result of the Second World War, and demands their return in full. For its part, Moscow believes that it owns the islands legally and that Russia's sovereignty over them is beyond question.

Without exaggeration, Putin's sensational proposal caused a flurry of negative comments in Japan, and Abe himself was criticized at home for his reaction to Putin's idea. As expected, the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper, published near the disputed islands, immediately reacted. On September 14, she published an editorial titled "Putin Must Reject His Offer." The leitmotif of the article is the assertion that a peace treaty with Russia cannot be concluded without the return of its "northern territories". On the same day, the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun wrote that Japan had actually ignored the sudden proposal of Russian President Vladimir Putin to conclude a peace treaty this year. At the same time, the newspaper notes, opponents of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticized him for his timidity and ineffectiveness of behavior during communication with Putin in Vladivostok. At the same time, Asahi Shimbun points to the government's concern that any response perceived as critical of Putin's proposal could further "upset the Russian leader and hinder progress in negotiations between Tokyo and Moscow."

Shigeru Ishiba, who was Abe's only rival in the September 20 elections for chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, criticized his talks with Putin on the "northern territories." Ishiba said Putin long ago said that Russia would never return the islands, no matter what economic cooperation Japan promised. And Ishiba's aide said the prime minister in Vladivostok should have immediately given a strong response to Putin and reminded him of Japan's main position on the peace treaty.

Abe was forced to make excuses in connection with the reproaches expressed against 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 did not change its position regarding the preliminary resolution of 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 although Putin's proposal contradicted Japan's position, it would be inappropriate to criticize any attempt to conclude a peace treaty.

Asahi Shimbun notes that although Abe and Putin have met a total of 22 times, little progress has been made in resolving the territorial dispute. According to the publication, Japanese government officials want to avoid offending Putin and thereby harming any future negotiations, but at the same time they had concerns about Abe's image in their country. The newspaper believes that criticism of Putin's proposal would represent a step backward in the Japanese-Russian negotiations, as well as an admission that discussions between the two leaders have yielded little or no tangible results.

During the visit of the Russian president to Japan in December 2016, the newspaper reminds, Abe and Putin agreed on joint economic activities in the northern territories as a step towards resolving the territorial dispute. Asahi Shimbun suggests that Putin's proposal is a signal that Russia may not be satisfied not only with the pace of implementation of joint management 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 has provided fresh ground for criticism of the prime minister. Opposition parties also criticized Abe's lack of any counter-argument to Putin's proposal. The most harsh statement was made by Kazuo Sii, the head of the Japanese Communist Party, calling Abe's reaction a diplomatic fiasco, since, they say, he did not refute or even objected to Putin's proposal.

On the occasion of Putin's September proposal, a big editorial broke out on September 14 in the Japanese officialdom - the Japan Times. The article has the characteristic heading "Postponing the territorial dispute with Russia on the shelf is unacceptable." According to the newspaper, the proposal by 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 the long-standing territorial dispute with Moscow before signing a peace treaty. ... Given the stalled negotiations on the dispute, the statement could be interpreted as a call from Putin to effectively postpone the scandal over the Hokkaido group of islands captured by Soviet forces in 1945 - a proposal that is unacceptable neither from the point of view of public sentiment in Japan, nor from any strategic point of view. Tokyo should not be allowed to shake its position with an unexpected remark and should step up efforts to resolve the territorial conflict with Russia, writes the Japan Times.

The newspaper believes that Shinzo Abe, who held 22 summits with Putin during his tenure as prime minister, is counting on his close personal relationship with the Russian leader as leverage to advance bilateral relations. As part of a "new approach" to bilateral ties, Abe sought to expand economic cooperation with Russia, including implementing joint projects on the disputed islands, creating conditions for improving relations, which opens the way to resolving the territorial conflict.

However, the Japanese officialdom notes, negotiations at the working level between the Japanese and Russian governments on the issue of sovereignty over Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islands have not been held since the summer of 2016. During their summit in Vladivostok, Abe and Putin agreed on a roadmap for the creation conditions for joint economic activities on the disputed islands, including the development of tourism and the cultivation of seafood, and the dispatch of a Japanese mission to the islands in October. However, the governments of the two countries are still at an impasse over a special agreement that would allow Japan to participate in projects on the Russian-controlled islands without infringing on its territorial claims from a legal point of view. Russia, which welcomes Japanese investment and technology to develop its Far Eastern territories, is unwilling to agree to 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 negotiations with Abe on the eve of the forum, such a proposal was not made by him. Whatever Putin's motives may be, Russia does not seem ready to make any kind of compromise over the territorial dispute. It continues to build military facilities in its Far East region, including the disputed islands. In 2016, Russia deployed surface-to-ship missiles on the islands of Kunashir and Iturup. Putin himself remains tough on the territorial issue. Putin's latest statement should prompt Tokyo to reconsider its current approach to relations with Moscow in order to advance negotiations on the territorial dispute, urges the Japan Times.

The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper ran an article on September 14 under the headline "Putin's proposal for a peace treaty with Japan shakes 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 meeting with Putin as a great foreign policy achievement and thereby strengthen his position in the pre-election struggle. However, the sudden proposal of the Russian leader for a peace treaty dealt a blow to Abe, as he was driven into a diplomatic corner and could not answer it.

Shigeru Ishiba, a former LDP secretary general and defense minister, criticized Abe's tactics in territorial negotiations with Russia in a September 15 interview with the same newspaper. Ishiba, in particular, said that he "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 resolve the territorial issue by strengthening his relationship of personal trust with Putin. Ishiba expressed the opinion that Putin's proposal was "carefully calculated" and it casts doubt on everything that was achieved by the two leaders during the past negotiations.

Nevertheless, regarding the proposal of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Abe said: "We must be open to the message inherent in (Putin's) words. No one denies that he expressed his opinion on the need for a peace treaty." however, that he himself did not make any changes in policy, stating: “Japan remains committed to the position that it will resolve territorial issues before signing a peace treaty.” The prime minister indicated that he communicated this position to Putin before and after he made his offer.

The debate between the two Japanese politicians continued with their own eyes when they met in a live televised debate on NHK on September 16. There, Abe called for calm discussions after Putin's unexpected remarks and reiterated that Japan adheres to the basic position - first to resolve the territorial issue and then conclude a peace treaty. Ishiba, for his part, urged to refrain from optimism during negotiations on the northern territories, saying: "Putin's territorial commitment is extremely strong."

Among other Japanese media, as usual, the right-wing nationalist newspaper Sankei Shimbun spoke out the most. On September 17, she published an editorial titled "If Russia Doesn't Return the Northern Territories, Japan Must Reject the Peace Treaty." The paper believes that now is the time for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to restructure Japan's diplomacy towards Russia so that the return of territories north of Hokkaido to Japan materializes. The newspaper, without hesitation in expressions, writes that Putin's unexpected appeal, aimed at effectively postponing the long-standing territorial dispute between Japan and Russia over the group of islands off northeastern Hokkaido, captured by Soviet troops in 1945, should be viewed as nothing other than a shameless ruse. "Sankei Shimbun" is confident that if the territorial dispute is postponed, then there will be no prospects for demarcating the border between Japan and Russia. In her opinion, any treaty that fails to establish a 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 coincide with Vostok 2018, the largest military games in the post-Soviet space, in which Chinese troops took part for the first time. Moreover, with his display of military power in the background, the newspaper put it, he had the nerve to make a pompous appeal to Japan over a long-standing territorial dispute. According to the publication, Putin is simply mocking Japan, offering Tokyo to succumb to his trick.

Further, the mouthpiece of Japanese nationalist circles interprets the background of the unexpected proposal of the Russian president as follows: cooperation in the Japanese territories occupied by Russia. It was a calculation to shame Prime Minister Abe, not an idea that “just came to my mind” contrary to Putin’s words to the contrary. ” And further: "What is clear is that Putin did not buy into Prime Minister Abe's" new approach "to building mutual trust through economic cooperation and using it to achieve a breakthrough in the 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 at home, Shinzo Abe intends to continue his previous course towards Russia in the hope that on the basis of 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. Confident in his victory in the LDP presidential election on September 20, the Japanese prime minister said that meetings with Putin this November at the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea and in December at the GXNUMX summit in Buenos Aires will be value.
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