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2019 to test Abe and Japanese diplomats over efforts to secure return of Russian-held isles

Russia's President Valdimir Putin shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a meeting at the Moscow Kremlin on May 26, 2018. (Druzhinin Alexei/TASS/Zuma Press/TNS)
January 08, 2019

2019 will be a big year for Japanese diplomats and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with a number of major events that will be attended by hundreds of top leaders and VIPs from across the globe.

These include the Group of 20 summit in Osaka on June 28 and 29, when the leaders of the United States, China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia and Europe will come to Japan and are expected to hold bilateral talks with Abe on the sidelines.

In addition, dozens of top African leaders will gather at the 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development summit in Yokohama from Aug. 28 through 30.

And most notably, the Imperial accession ceremony and related events are scheduled in Tokyo on Oct. 22, to which top leaders of more than 100 countries are expected to be invited.

“I have worked for the Foreign Ministry for years, but I have never seen a year like (2019),” a senior Foreign Ministry official said last month. “We are entering a year of a completely different level” from an average year.

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How big exactly will those events be?

When Emperor Akihito held his own official accession ceremony in November 1990, VIPs from 120 countries came to Tokyo, with then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu holding bilateral meetings with as many as 59 of his counterparts and then-Foreign Minister Taro Nayakama meeting 65 leaders on the sidelines of the Imperial ceremonies.

As of December, Japan diplomatically recognizes 195 countries. If Tokyo sends invitations to all of those nations, the number of guests flying in for the Imperial ceremony this year could be much larger than in 1990.

However, the real test for Abe’s diplomacy is likely to come in June, when he is expected to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G20 meetings, experts say.

In fact, the summit with Putin is likely to be a make-or-break gamble for Abe, who is eager to settle a long-standing territorial row with Russia that has prevented the two countries from concluding a post-World War II peace treaty.

Abe now appears to be trying to strike a compromise with Russia by winning back only two of the four disputed isles off Hokkaido, which were seized from Japan by Soviet forces near the end of World War II. After meeting with Putin in Singapore on Nov. 14, Abe told reporters the two leaders had agreed to “accelerate peace treaty talks” by using a 1956 joint declaration as “the foundation” for the territorial negotiations.

Under the 1956 joint statement, the Soviet Union agreed to hand over two small islets — Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — to Japan after concluding a peace treaty. But it did not touch on the other two much larger islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu.

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“The remarks Abe made in Singapore carry much weight,” said Kazuhiko Togo, director at the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University. As a former senior Foreign Ministry official, he had been engaged in a number of key negotiations with Moscow over the territorial issue.

Speaking to The Japan Times, Togo focused on Abe’s remark in Singapore that the two leaders had agreed to try to “put a period” at the end of the territorial talks and would not leave any issues “for next negotiations.”

This appears to imply that Abe and Putin have basically agreed that Tokyo would no longer claim sovereignty over Kunashiri and Etorofu if Moscow hands over the Habomai islets and Shikotan based on the 1956 statement, Togo said. Moscow would also allow Japan to conduct joint economic activities on Kunashiri and Etorofu, Togo added.

Dmitry Streltsov, a noted Japan expert and head of the Department of Afro-Asian Studies at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, agreed with Togo’s view that the deal is likely to be centered on the return of the Habomai islets and Shikotan alone.

“My personal view is that Russia will not go beyond the conditions of the 1956 declaration,” he said. “Discussion of (the return of) the four islands is not possible in Russia at all.” However, for Abe, giving up on Kunashiri and Etorofu could come with a big political cost because such a deal might draw a strong backlash from voters.

For decades Japan has demanded the return of all of the four islands, which it says were “illegally” seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II.

According to the Foreign Ministry, Japan first discovered and surveyed the four islands and effectively established control over them by the early 19th century at the latest.

Since then, Moscow and Tokyo concluded three treaties that drew boundaries in the region that stipulated the four islands belonged to Japan.

But the Soviet Union declared war against Japan on Aug. 9, 1945, reneging on the 1941 Tokyo-Moscow neutrality pact. It then seized the four islands between Aug. 28 and Sept. 5.

“Subsequently, the Soviet Union unilaterally incorporated the territories under occupation into its own territories without any legal grounds,” the Foreign Ministry says on its website.

By 1949 Moscow had forcibly deported all of the Japanese residents of the four islands — some 17,000 people — according to the ministry.

Nobuo Shimotomai, a professor of Russian studies at Hosei University in Tokyo, said both Putin and Abe would need to explain to their own voters if they would strike any compromise based on the return of the Habomai islets and Shikontan.

“Russia and the Soviet Union have never renounced land they won through war. On the other hand, Japan has explained to its people (that the four islands) are an inherent part of its territory,” Shimotomai said.

Thus both Abe and Putin must tame nationalistic sentiment in their own countries, Shimotomai said.

According to media reports, Foreign Minister Taro Kono plans to visit Moscow on Jan. 14, and Abe will go there around Jan. 21 to discuss the territorial issue with Putin.

They are now trying to lay the groundwork for reaching a final agreement by the G20 summit in June.

“In my view, the first half of the year will be the most important. It will show whether this issue will be ever settled,” Streltsov said.

The window of opportunity for the two leaders to settle the territorial row looks very narrow, he warned.

Putin’s standing in Russia has rapidly fallen in recent months, partly because of his unpopular pension reform plan.

Meanwhile, Abe will be kept busy working on events related to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics and his term as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ends in September 2021 at the latest, making it difficult for him to focus on the issue beyond 2019.

“If (Abe) postpones this issue one year more, there will be no other window of opportunity to settle it,” Streltsov said.

Meanwhile Togo pointed out that for years Russia has been in “an overwhelmingly advantageous position” in territorial talks because it has effectively controlled all the islands since the end of World War II.

“Usually only use of force would enable a country to win back territory it lost in war. Japan has been trying to achieve this difficult task only through negotiations,” he said.

Still, Russia offered substantial concessions favorable to Japan in 1992 and 2001 to start territorial negotiations. But each time Japan failed to seize the opportunity, which has further stiffened the attitude of Moscow, according to Togo.

In March 1992, for example, when Moscow’s economic and political power was badly weakened following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, then-Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev secretly proposed that the two countries start talks over the handover of Shikotan and the Habomai islets to Japan.

If the deal had been successfully concluded, Tokyo and Moscow would then similarly negotiate over the handover of Etorofu and Kunashiri, which would have been followed by the conclusion of a peace treaty if the two countries agreed on all the relevant issues, according to Kozyrev’s secret proposal.

The conditions offered by Kozyrev looked far better than any of Russia’s proposals in the past. But Japanese diplomats rejected any negotiations based on this secret proposal, instead demanding that Russia first recognize Japan’s sovereign power over all of the four islands.

This high-handed demand prompted Russian officials to terminate talks and led to the sudden cancellation of then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s visit to Japan only four days before his planned arrival in September 1992, according to Togo.

“If Japan won’t make a decision to start negotiations this time, that would be the third time” Tokyo fails to respond to significant concessions from Russia, Togo said.

“No (future) Russian president would be willing to restart negotiations, believing it would just end up in a waste of energy” if Abe withdraws from the territorial talks for no good reason, he said.

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© 2019 the Japan Times (Tokyo)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.