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Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011
Gaining leverage up north
In a Feb. 11 meeting in Moscow, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara and his Russian counterpart, Mr. Sergei Lavrov, failed to make any progress on a decades-old sovereignty dispute over the four islands off Hokkaido held by Russia. Bilateral ties are at their lowest ebb in many years. It is all the more important for Japan to seek every chance to open and keep channels of communication with Russia so that mutually trustful ties will be attained.
Regrettably, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri Island, one of the four islands, on Nov. 1, heralding a series of visits since then by high-ranking Russian officials to what Japan calls the Northern Territories. On Feb. 7, the Northern Territories Day, Prime Minister Naoto Kan denounced Mr. Medvedev's Kunashiri visit as an "unforgivable outrage." Since Japan has no direct means to end Russia's effective control over the islands, this was diplomatically a thoughtless remark.
Two days later, Mr. Medvedev said that the islands are integral part of Russia and that Moscow will make every effort to strengthen its armed forces there. The Russian military said that it will soon station two French-made Mistral-class amphibious assault ships in the Russian Far East, partly to defend the islands.
Mr. Kan's remark gave Mr. Lavrov an excuse to say that if Japan takes an "extreme position" over the islands issue, there will be no hope for talks toward a peace treaty. But he said that Russia is ready to establish a comprehensive partnership with Japan in such fields as trade, investment and international affairs. Mr. Kan and other Japanese leaders must refrain from making careless remarks and carefully watch for cracks in Russia's behavior and statements that can be used for meaningful dialogue.
Mr. Maehara and Mr. Lavrov agreed to set up a high-level task force to study Japan's possible participation in economic development of the islands. Japan should tackle the task of solving related legal problems while preventing other countries like China and South Korea from establishing business strongholds there to the disadvantage of Japan.