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Don’t let territorial dispute just drift along

During their meeting in Moscow last week, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, discussed the bilateral territorial dispute over four islands off Hokkaido but failed to reach agreement as they reiterated their countries’ conventional stances.

Japan-Russia relations have become seriously strained since Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited one of the four islands in November. There seems to be little chance of a breakthrough in negotiations over the territorial issue.

But letting bilateral relations continue in this chilled state will not benefit either side. We urge both governments to take every opportunity to continue negotiations in a bid to untangle this long-standing issue.

The Maehara-Lavrov meeting was reportedly tense after beginning without a handshake. Maehara proposed seeking a solution acceptable to both sides based on past accords ― including the Tokyo Declaration of 1993 ― as well as law and justice.

Lavrov, on the other hand, insisted the two countries “should promote discussions without any premise and historical connections.” He appeared to be calling on Japan, which insists all four islands be returned, to take a more flexible stance.

The meeting lasted about two hours, double the length that had been scheduled. However, both sides ended up arguing at cross-purposes over the four islands known as the northern territories in Japan. The only outcome was an agreement to continue negotiations.

That the meeting would end with such paltry results had been widely anticipated.

In recent years, Russia has been striving to develop oil and natural gas fields in its Far East region. As part of this endeavor, Russia has invested a considerable amount of money and resources in the four disputed islands. Opinion seems to have been growing in Russia that there is no longer any need to make concessions to Japan on the territorial issue.

This view has gained traction following a string of visits to the islands by Russian government leaders following Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri Island.

The government should not sit back and allow the “Russianization” of the northern territories. Tokyo must devise a concrete strategy to tackle this issue, rather than merely lobbing inflammatory insults at Russia as Prime Minister Naoto Kan did when he recently called Medvedev’s trip “an unforgivable outrage.”

In a meeting of the Japan-Russia Intergovernmental Committee on Trade and Economic Issues held after the foreign ministerial talks, the two countries agreed to set up a roundtable panel consisting of government officials and executives of major businesses to promote bilateral economic cooperation. The panel is expected to discuss modernizing Russian production facilities and development in the Russian Far East.

Japan’s direct investment in Russia has been rising steadily in recent years. Russia, for its part, is hungry for Japan’s cooperation in high technology and other fields.

We hope this bilateral economic cooperation will eventually lead to improved diplomatic and security ties. This would also help keep China in check.

However, economic cooperation should not be allowed to charge ahead while the territorial dispute is swept under the rug.

The government must persistently remind Moscow that economic development can be taken to the next level only through the conclusion of a peace treaty that establishes a genuine relationship of trust.

(The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 13)
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