Japan's reaction to Russian president's trip to disputed isles sign of weakness?

08:03, November 02, 2010      

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Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev take pictures during his visit to Kunashiri Island, one of four islands known as the Southern Kuriles in Russia and Northern Territories in Japan, November 1, 2010. (Xinhua/Reuters)

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to the Southern Kuril island of Kunashir sparked strong reaction of Japan, which also claimed this island along with three others.

Some Russian experts say Japan's anger was a sign of the country's weakness.

On Monday morning, Medvedev became the first Russian or Soviet leader since the end of World War II to put his feet on this tiny island, one of a group of disputed islands between Moscow and Tokyo.

The controversy Tokyo tries to blow up around this visit is of entirely artificial nature, Vyacheslav Amirov, an expert with the Asia-Pacific Department of the Russian Academy of Science, told Xinhua.

"The president's trip to Sakhalin region (part of Kuril Islands) was announced beforehand, so Tokyo did not need to agitate itself and pretend to be surprised with it," Amirov said.

Tokyo's reaction just demonstrated the weakness of its position, because Japanese politicians effectively created a "catch 22" situation, making themselves hostage of their own standing on the territorial dispute, Amirov told Xinhua.

In September, Medvedev said the disputed Pacific islands "are an important region of our country" and he would visit them in the near future whereas the Japanese side said Medvedev's possible visit would create "serious obstacles" in bilateral relations.

Despite Japan's objection, the Kremlin has consistently claimed it would be absurd to discuss with foreign states on the visit of a Russian president to Kuril Islands.

"Russian leaders have been paying ever increasing attention to the Far East. Russia's government works out a program for the region's development," Amirov said.

During his trip, Medvedev said the Russian government wanted people to remain there.

"Development here is important. We will definitely be investing money here," the president was quoted by local media as saying when asked about the island's growing population outflow.

Even the regional capital Sakhalin lacks reliable communications with the continental Russian mainland, let alone the remote Kunashir island, which is called Kunashiri in Japan.

Federal authorities recently allocated funds for building an all-weather runway and sea port on Kunashir to make transport links between the island and the continent less weather dependent.

According to the Kremlin's official web-site, Medvedev and Sakhalin governor Alexander Khorashavin discussed this problem and other social and economic issues of the isles, but never mentioned any international dimension of the situation.

Earlier in the day, Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara told a committee of the lower house of parliament that Medvedev's visit to the disputed isle "hurts Japanese public sentiment."

At the same committee, Prime Minister Naoto Kan asserted the islands were Japanese territory and described Medvedev's move as "extremely deplorable," while Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku said Japan was to decide what steps it would take after checking the president's remarks.

Amirov said the Japanese were overreacting.

"This visit changed nothing in Moscow's position on this territorial dispute. Tokyo's laments over Medvedev's trip to Kunashir brought in very little new, too," he said.

Russia's ambassador to Japan, Mikhail Bely, summoned by Japanese Foreign Minister Maehara, responded calmly, reiterating his country's position that Kuril islands had been Russia's sovereign territory.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday called "unacceptable" Tokyo's reaction to Medvedev's trip to the Kurils, stressing that the Russian president was traveling on Russian land.

"Moscow controls these isles for 65 years with no interruption. So Kremlin unlikely intended to tease Japan with this trip, especially in the run-up of Medvedev's visit to this country for the APEC summit in mid-November," Amirov said.

Alexander Panov, Russian ambassador to Japan in 1996-2003, told Xinhua that Tokyo might consider this trip as a sort of Russia's probing action ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum meeting, and if so, it was an entirely wrong perception.

Moscow did not need to test Tokyo's reaction because Russia knew all Japan would say over the subject, well in advance, he said.

"As long ago as in 1956, Moscow offered to hand over to Japan two Kuril isles as a good-will gesture. Still, Japan employed an 'all-or-nothing' approach that would lead to nowhere," said Panov, director of the Russian Diplomatic Academy.

In October 1956, the Soviet Union proposed to settle the dispute by returning the Shikotan Island and Habomai rocks to Japan until a permanent peace treaty to be signed by both countries.

Yet, the two countries still have not concluded a permanent peace treaty due to the dispute over the islands.

According to Japanese reports, Medvedev's trip has prompted Tokyo to consider whether there would be bilateral meetings between Kan and Medvedev, as well as between Maehara and his Russian counterpart Lavrov.

The meetings could take place on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Seoul next week and of the APEC summit in Yokohama, Japan, later this month, Japanese news reports said.

The former envoy Panov was certain that it would not be a tragedy for Medvedev if Japanese authorities did not cool down two weeks before his arrival in Tokyo. Russia might simply utilize a wise "wait-and-see" approach, since Moscow enjoyed the advantage of the status quo in its relations with Japan, Panov said.

Medvedev's visit has created a dilemma for Japan. On the one hand, Japan cannot be too tough as it would hold the APEC summit that Medvedev was scheduled to attend. On the other hand, a weak stance of Kan's administration will lead to troubles in domestic politics.

The disputed Pacific islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, were occupied by the Soviet troops in 1945 and are currently under Russian control.

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