On Monday, Russia’s top diplomat threw cold water on Tokyo’s hopes for a quick return of disputed islands in the Pacific, warning Japan that it must recognize them as part of Russia’s territory as a starting point for talks.
The stern statement from Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which followed the talks with his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono, appeared to reflect Moscow’s efforts to temper Japanese expectations of an imminent deal.
It sets a tough stage for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month. Abe has recently voiced hope that this year will mark a breakthrough in solving the territorial dispute and spoke about an imminent change in the islands’ status — remarks that angered Moscow.
“Russia’s sovereignty over the islands isn’t subject to discussion. They are part of the territory of the Russian Federation,” Lavrov told reporters, noting that the U.N. Charter supports Moscow’s ownership of them.
Speaking at the start of the talks, Kono emphasized that the two countries need to solve the territorial problem to set stage for expanding their economic and other ties.
But reflecting sharp differences at the talks, the Japanese delegation has scheduled a separate briefing later in the day.
The Soviet Union took the four southernmost Kuril Islands during the final days of World War II. Japan asserts territorial rights to the islands, which it calls the Northern Territories, and the dispute has kept both countries from signing a peace treaty.
The Japanese have long argued that for a peace treaty to be signed, the territorial issue has to be settled first. The Russian side, in contrast, has stressed that the territorial issue isn’t up for debate and has pushed for work on the peace treaty, without preconditions.
Putin and Abe agreed in November to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 Soviet proposal to return two of the islands to Japan but Lavrov’s somber tone indicated that Japanese expectations of a quick breakthrough were premature.
Abe’s optimism had raised concerns in Russian nationalist circles and fueled criticism of the Kremlin. In an apparent attempt to contain the damage, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador to warn Tokyo not to “artificially incite the atmosphere regarding the peace treaty problem and try to enforce its own scenario of settling the issue.”
Lavrov struck a similar chord as he sat down for talks Monday with Kono, saying that “once again, I would like to ask our Japanese colleagues to strictly follow agreements by our leaders, both regarding the format of talks and, naturally, the substance of work on peace treaty.”
Speaking after the talks, he said Moscow saw recent statements from Abe as unacceptable.
The Russian diplomat said he also drew Kono’s attention to a statement by Abe’s political aide suggesting that solving the territorial dispute with Russia would help efforts by Japan and the U.S. to deter China.
Many Japanese policymakers view China as a much bigger threat than Russia and see the settling of a peace treaty with Moscow as a way to strengthen Tokyo’s position in the region.
Lavrov called the statement “outrageous,” adding that it raised new questions about the independence of Japanese foreign policy.
“We wondered whether Japan could be independent given such reliance on the U.S., and we were told that Japan would act proceeding from its national interests,” Lavrov said. “We would like to hope it will indeed be so.”
He noted that the Soviet Union had proposed returning the two islands to Japan before Tokyo struck a military alliance with the U.S. in 1960, and the American military presence in Japan has changed the situation.
Lavrov noted that Russia is concerned about the U.S. military buildup in the region, including the deployment of U.S. missile defense components that he said create security risks for Russia and China.
In November 2018, Abe told Putin that if the islands were returned to Japan, Tokyo would not allow the U.S. to build military facilities on them. At the same time, the Japanese procurement of two U.S.-made land-based Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense batteries in summer 2018 raised concerns in Moscow.
In December 2018, Japan officially logged a protest with Russia over the construction of four barracks on two islets in the disputed territory.
On a positive note, Lavrov added Monday that Russia and Japan agree on the need to improve ties, but emphasized that “major differences have remained.”
By Vladimir Isachenkov of the Associated Press with additional reporting by The Diplomat.