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Southern Kurils: while in the dialogue format

Putin and Abe spoke at the APEC summit on joint economic activities on disputed islands

10 November, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met on the margins of the APEC summit in the Vietnamese city of Danang. This was already the twentieth rendezvous of the two heads of state, taking into account their meetings during Abe's first prime time in 2006-2007. Against the backdrop of Putin's virtually collapsed summit with US President Donald Trump, the dialogue between the Russian and Japanese leaders is impressive for their duration. According to Japanese media, the conversation lasted about an hour, from within 15 minutes - face to face, in the presence of only translators.

Southern Kurils: while in the dialogue format
Photo by:

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
The Russian President congratulated the Prime Minister of Japan on the victory of his party in the recent parliamentary elections. He said (quoted with the preservation of punctuation from “First of all, I would like to congratulate you, Shinzo, on your convincing victory in the elections. I hope this will enable us to implement all our plans. " In addition, Putin expressed his joy at the ongoing development of bilateral relations. He also noted the intensification of political dialogue and the development of economic ties. At the same time, the Russian president made a reservation that there are always issues that require additional discussion.

In addition to the burning nuclear missile problem of the DPRK, at the meeting of the two leaders, the joint economic activities of Russia and Japan on the four islands of the southern Kuriles (Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai) were subjected to "additional discussion". They are claimed by Tokyo, calling them its northern territories. The agreement on joint management in the disputed territories was reached during the official visit of the Russian President to Japan in December 2016. Since then, a dialogue has been held between the two countries at different levels and in different formats to implement the decisions of their leaders. However, apparently, the negotiations are not easy due to the differences in the target approaches of the parties to the specified management.  

At a press conference in Da Nang, after speaking with Putin, Abe said that they had agreed to accelerate the pace of preparation of joint economic programs on the islands, which are disputed by the two countries. As the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun reported on November 11, it was during the mentioned quarter of an hour that the problems related to the disputed islands were intensively discussed. However, the details of the discussion were not disclosed by officials of both countries.

During a meeting between Putin and Abe in early September this year in Vladivostok, on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum, five areas were outlined in which joint projects would be implemented, and the two leaders agreed to start implementing them as soon as possible. These areas include fishing, tourism, wind power, medicine, and the environment. To get acquainted with the situation on the spot, a delegation consisting of representatives of government agencies and private business of Japan has twice visited the southern Kuriles this year. In September, for the first time, ex-Japanese residents of the islands visited the graves of their ancestors using a charter flight. Putin and Abe have agreed to ease the procedures for these residents' travel to the islands.  

According to Abe, in Da Nang, he agreed with Putin to speed up the preparation of projects in the five listed areas for their implementation next spring.
In addition, Abe himself plans to visit Russia again in May 2018. The Mainichi Shimbun writes that Japan is committed to making visible progress on projects as soon as possible, and the two sides have agreed to hold senior officials' meetings early next year. By the end of this year, a visit to Russia by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono may take place.

At the same time, Japan still retains critical assessments of how Russia and Japan are moving towards joint economic activities in the "northern territories." The Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper published on the island of the same name, for obvious reasons, was the first to respond with its editorial article to the meeting between Putin and Abe in Da Nang. In the issue of November 11, the newspaper notes that this was the twentieth meeting of the leaders of the two countries, but casts doubt on the correspondence of the results of these meetings to their number. 

The Hokkaido Shimbun writes that the two leaders agreed on a course to concretize joint economic activities in the "northern territories" next spring. However, in her opinion, the real image of a "special system" is still not visible, which for Japan is a prerequisite for this activity (by this system, Tokyo means a kind of "special regime" in which the laws of neither Russia nor Japan are in force in the southern Kuriles - EastRussia.). The publication regrets that the discussion of the legal framework for this activity at the level of deputy ministers was postponed to early next year.

For Japan, the newspaper believes, the calculation seems to be to quickly concretize the work, based on the assumption that if a "special system" comes to the fore, this could cause opposition within Russia and disrupt consultations. However, the article says, the Russian side aims to conduct joint activities only on the basis of the laws of its own country. The newspaper expresses concern that, due to the accelerated implementation of specific projects, this may become a fait accompli. For Japan, she emphasizes, it is important to confirm that the islands belong to Japan. In the pursuit of short-term gain, principles cannot be compromised, warns the Hokkaido Shimbun in its lightning-fast editorial.

The idea that Russia and Japan pursue different ultimate goals in joint economic activities in the southern Kuril Islands sounds like a refrain in many other publications of the Japanese media devoted to this activity. For example, the Japan Times newspaper published an article in its October 31 issue that speaks of Tokyo's hopes that joint economic projects will pave the way for a solution to a decades-old territorial dispute with Russia, while Moscow seeks only to attract Japanese investment to the underdeveloped islands. next to Hokkaido. In a July 27 issue, the major newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun also states: "While Japan hopes that joint economic activities will pave the way for the return of the northern territories, Russia intends to revive the economy there." The newspaper predicts that while the Russian government and local residents of the four islands have high hopes for Japanese money as a means of economic revitalization on the islands, Russia will change its attitude when Japan touches on the topic of their return. There is still a big gap in the expectations of Japan and Russia - sums up the most widely read newspaper in Japan.

Incidentally, Abe also played on the topic of the territorial dispute with Russia during his campaign in the October parliamentary elections, on which Putin congratulated his Japanese counterpart. Speaking at a rally in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido bordering the southern Kurils, he said that the return of the islands to Japan is the heartfelt desire of Japanese citizens, and the signing of a peace treaty between Tokyo and Moscow is beneficial for both sides. Abe also declared his determination to return these territories during the lifetime of the present generation. Such a statement, one can assume, brought him many votes of Japanese voters, especially in Hokkaido, which is the center of the movement for the return of the "northern territories" in Japan.

As for the peace treaty between Russia and Japan, as RIA Novosti reports, at a press conference in Da Nang, Putin said: “This is all part of our common plans. There are many questions about the peace treaty here. It is no secret that we must also see here what obligations Japan has with its partners in the field of defense and security, how this will affect the course of the peace process under the peace treaty between Russia and Japan, what obligations Japan has, and what it can and cannot do it yourself. "

As you know, the Russian side has already raised the issue of the possibility of deploying American troops in the southern Kuriles in accordance with the Japanese-American security treaty in the event of the transfer of the islands to Japan. Japanese officials did not deny this possibility.

Also in Danang, Putin said that negotiations on a peace treaty could take years. It should be borne in mind, however, that in fact, Japan does not need the treaty itself, which it has imposed on Russia for decades and which practically does not change anything in Russian-Japanese relations, but the South Kuril Islands themselves.

As a result of the victory in the aforementioned parliamentary elections, Abe has the prospect of an unprecedented third consecutive re-election as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September 2018 and, accordingly, for the first time in Japanese history, to extend his tenure as prime minister for a third term - until 2021 year.

Few doubt that in Russia in March 2018, Putin will again be elected to the post of President of Russia for the next six years. Apparently, this was what the Russian leader had in mind when he said at the last meeting with Abe that his victory in the elections "will allow us to realize all our plans." It is possible, however, that everyone sees these plans differently.
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