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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011
Northern island scrimmage
Russia has mounted a diplomatic offensive against Japan concerning the disputed four islands off Hokkaido claimed by both countries and held by Russia. Japan is hard put to take an effective counter move.
On Nov. 1, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri, one of the four Islands, becoming the first Russian leader to visit what Japan calls the northern territories. On Dec. 13, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's right-hand man, visited Kunashiri and Etorofu islands to inspect infrastructure development in the Kurils.
On Dec. 24, Mr. Medvedev said in an interview with Russia's three major TV channels that "all the South Kuril Islands are Russia's territory" and that Russia will not give them up. Japan protested against his remark, saying that the islands he referred to are an "integral part of Japan."
Mr. Medvedev also proposed that Russia and Japan carry out joint economic projects on the disputed islands to create a free economic zone. Japan will not join such projects because doing so would mean recognizing Russia's sovereignty over the islands.
On Dec. 27, Sakhalin Gov. Alexander Khoroshavin said that four Russian government ministers — of defense, transport, regional development and education — will visit the islands after Jan. 1.
The government reportedly plans to sack its ambassador to Moscow, Mr. Masaharu Kono, for allegedly failing to send accurate information on Mr. Medvedev's Kunashiri visit beforehand. But sacking him will be of little use in overcoming the deadlock in the Japan-Russia ties. (There is a view that the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo failed to properly inform Japan's leaders.)
Regrettably the Kan administration has made little effort to deepen communication with Russian leaders. One also wonders whether Japan has channels of communication with the part of Kremlin that has a real power over Russia's diplomacy. Japan's approach of creating an environment conducive to solving the territorial issue through economic cooperation may not work. Japan must quickly develop a new strategy to deal with Russia before Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara visits Moscow in February.