Public opinion and security concerns hurt resolution of Russia-Japan territorial row

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/30 12:23:39

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should accept the reality of long-term talks with Russia on territorial disputes.

In the summit between Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kremlin on January 22, no progress was made on the core issues related to Japan-Russia territorial disputes during the three-hour negotiations, Asahi Shimbun reported.

Japan-Russia ties have made significant progress during the three summits held recently. In November 2018, Abe held talks with Putin during the ASEAN Summit in Singapore and both sides agreed to speed up the signing of the peace treaty based on the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. In December, they again met at the G20 Summit in Argentina and decided to draft a new peace treaty and set up a negotiation mechanism for territorial issues. In the Japan-Russia Summit in January, both sides discussed the direction the peace treaty would take and agreed to finalize a deal by June this year. If the negotiations go smoothly, I believe the Japan-Russia Peace Treaty is expected to be signed within Abe's term of office that ends in 2021. Such a treaty will contribute to peace and stability in Japan and Russia and the larger East Asia. 

A stumbling block in Japan-Russia relations is the disputes over the Northern Territories (called the Kuril Islands in Russia). Although many people think that the disputes cannot be solved in the short run, I think the positive attitude of Abe and Putin can't be ignored. Abe has met Putin 25 times since 2013, and both of them have laid the foundation of mutual trust, which means Putin is willing to hold talks with Japan to resolve territorial issues. From this perspective, as long as both sides can sit across the table, they would have made significant headway in improving bilateral ties. 

So far the key to resolving the territorial issues does not only lie with Japan and Russia, but also with other parties. Suppose Russia returns the Northern Territories to Tokyo, the US forces stationed in Japan and missile defense system would likely be deployed to the islands, which would undoubtedly pose a big threat to Russia. The Northern Territories derive their significance from the Yalta Agreement. If Russia makes a substantial concession, it means the results of the World War II would be negated and history would have to be rewritten, which would have an impact on the post-WWII international order. Of all the factors, the biggest obstacle is the gap in the public opinion between the two countries. 

In fact, it is in the spirit of the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration that Russia agrees to hand over the Habomai and Shikotan to Japan. However, a poll last November by a Russian independent agency Levada-Center showed that 74 percent of respondents did not support such a decision taken in the hope of drawing economic and investment benefits. The Public Opinion Foundation affiliated to the Russian government in another poll last year disclosed that only 12 percent of Russian respondents believe the Northern Territories should be run by both Russia and Japan, which shows that mainstream Russian media maintains a strong stance on territorial issues. 

On the other hand, the Japanese public has started to show flexibility on the Northern Territories issue. For instance, a poll in 2016 in Mainichi Shimbun revealed that 57 percent of participants would like to "take a flexible approach to retrieve the territories."

There is a fundamental difference in the perception on Northern Territories between the people of Japan and Russia. Even if the Russian government intends to return two of the islands to Japan in keeping with the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration, a divergence in public opinion, especially the Russian people's intransigence, will affect the decision of the Kremlin. 

Therefore, Japan and Russia should strengthen people-to-people exchanges in the future, and only deeper understanding can help settle the territorial issues. If the Japan-Russia peace treaty can be signed within Abe's term of office, territorial disputes between the two countries will surely be solved in the "post-Abe era." 

The author is an editor at the Global Times and an observer of Japan issues. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: ASIAN REVIEW

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