News Analysis: Japan, Russia continue to lock horns over islands row

08:27, February 12, 2011      

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Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara on Friday received a frosty welcome from his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow at the beginning of a two-day trip to the country, as increasingly barbed rhetoric between the two nations over a decades-old territorial dispute has threatened to severely damage bilateral ties.

According to the Japanese foreign ministry, Maehara's visit was intended to seek productive ways in which the two countries can accelerate the reaching of a resolution on the dispute over four Russian-held islands off the northeast coast of Hokkaido Prefecture, which Japan claims as its territory.

Constructive dialogue and new joint economic and environmental endeavors were supposed to be the crux of the meeting, originally planned in December.

However, growing tensions over the sovereignty of the islands, which Russia calls the Southern Kurils but is referred to by Japan as the Northern Territories, largely detracted from this objective.

Indeed, according to local media reports, the tone of the closed-door meeting between the two foreign ministers reflects the inherently resolute stance on the issue by both nations and a number of pacific affairs and Russo-Japan analysts see the impasse as insurmountable.

VERBAL JOUSTING

Lavrov was quoted as telling his Japanese equivalent on Friday that he was hoping to receive him in a positive political context but recent actions by Tokyo had severely clouded his visit.

The Russian foreign minister went as far as to say Maehara's visit came against a backdrop of actions by Tokyo considered by Moscow to be wholly "unacceptable," local media reported.

But Maehara, for his part, dodged the clear reference to a rally held in Tokyo during which a Russian flag was reportedly desecrated and burned by Japanese nationalists, spurring a pro- Kremlin youth organization to picket the Japanese Embassy in Moscow on Friday, prior to Meahara's arrival.

Further irritating Moscow, during Monday's annual Northern Territories Day rally, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan demanded the return of the islands held by Russia since the end of World War II and called the recent visit there by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev an "outrage."

Since Medvedev visited one of the islands last November as the first leader of Russia or the former Soviet Union to do so, a number of senior Russian officials have traveled to the disputed islands, provoking some harsh rhetoric from Japan.

Maehara reportedly said Friday that Moscow and Tokyo should try to find a way to overcome the dispute and avoided commenting directly on Lavrov's condemnation of Tokyo's rally.

Conceding the severity of the territorial problem, Maehara said that every option should be considered in overcoming it, in the best interests of both countries and in an effort to strengthen economic ties, said local media reports.

But some analysts felt the Japanese foreign minister was playing down his own and his government's convictions on the issue.

"Maehara's involvement in the territorial dispute predates his role as Japan's foreign minister and perhaps no one else understands the situation better that he does, from Japan's historical and political standpoint," Laurent Sinclair, an independent research analyst for pacific affairs, told Xinhua.

"During the rally in Tokyo on Monday, Maehara pledged that he would personally see to it that the islands are returned to Japan, in fact he staked his political career on the realization of this, " he said.

"And as much as it's in Japan's economic interests to have sovereignty over the islands, Maehara fundamentally believes two things: firstly, the islands are legally Japanese territory and secondly, that Japan cannot completely end World War II until the islands are returned and a peace treaty signed," Sinclair noted.

LOCKED HORNS

According to Sinclair, neither side seems willing to budge and the only glimmer of opportunity about a decade ago, when speculation was rife that the Russian side might agree to return two of the islands to Japan in return for a hefty financial settlement, has since faded as Medvedev rejects Japan's fundamental premise that the islands legally belong to them.

The Russian premier has sharpened his own rhetoric on the matter, calling the islands a "strategic region" of Russia that would soon be home to some of its most advanced weaponry.

And despite Maehara himself dismissing the remarks as irrelevant, Sinclair points out that Russia's deploying of high- tech weapons to the islands to ensure their security as an " inseparable part of the Russian Federation," as Medvedev put it, is testament to the seriousness of the situation.

"I don't think this issue should be dismissed as merely a " territorial spat" and let's not forget that for all intents and purposes Japan and Russia are still at war," Sinclair said.

"On an economic front, bilateral trade agreements could really boost development in Russia's Far East area generally and Japan has the fiscal prowess to involve itself in energy projects connected to the gas-rich Sakhalin Island region, but as the dispute mounts, Russia is looking to ally itself with South Korea economically, instead of Japan."

"The situation will not be resolved anytime soon and Russia talking about an increased military presence on the islands is proof that they are as resolute in keeping the islands in their control, as Japan are in getting them back," Sinclair said.

Seemingly Maehara's comments made to the press following his meeting with Lavrov and ahead of meetings with Russia's Industry and Trade Minister Viktor Khristenko later on Friday and talks scheduled with Sergei Naryshkin, chief of staff of the Russian Presidential Executive Office, on Saturday, confirm Sinclair's belief that the two countries will remain at loggerheads.

"The territorial problem remains unsettled in our relations. Our positions are different on this problem," local media quoted Meahara as saying.

"Under the reached agreements and the principles of lawfulness and justice, the countries should seek for mutually acceptable solutions," he said, reaffirming that "the Northern Territories are original Japanese territories in terms of history and the view recognized on the international scene."

The gap is still there between the two nations, as Sinclair put it, "The dispute will continue to rumble on."

Source: Xinhua

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