Who in the DPJ Government Will Take the Lead in Negotiations with Russia for the Return of the Northern Territories?
Russia is taking a cautious approach to the prospect of a concrete change in Japan's attitude toward the issue of the northern territories. Russia is also watching carefully to see who will lead the negotiations on behalf of the Hatoyama administration.
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On September 3, 2009, just after the Democratic Party of Japan's victory in the August general election made it clear that DPJ head Yukio Hatoyama would launch a new administration in Japan, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Andrei Nesterenko made the following statement with regard to the question of signing a formal bilateral peace treaty:
This short comment encapsulated the major issues of interest to the administration of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as it looked to the formation of the new Japanese government. In short, the key question for the Russians is whether there will be any concrete change in the Japanese approach to the issue of the “northern territories,” the islands off of Japan's main northern island of Hokkaido that Russia took over at the end of World War II.
The Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956, which restored diplomatic relations between the two nations, states the following in its Paragraph 9:
The bolded text (my emphasis) clearly states that the islands of Habomai and Shikotan will be returned to Japan once the two nations conclude a formal peace treaty. When interpreted in this light, Nesterenko's message delivered last fall boils down to: “Our nations should address the problem of the northern territories with the return of these islands and conclude a peace treaty.”
Soon after taking office, Prime Minister Hatoyama spoke with President Medvedev on September 17 in his first summit-level telephone conference. The prime minister followed this conference with a public statement expressing his strong hope that Japan would see progress in the area of the northern territories: “I would like to satisfy the wishes of the Japanese people within a half-year.”
What approach are Prime Minister Hatoyama and the DPJ administration he leads likely to take on this front? It is likely that a key figure will be New Party Daichi President Muneo Suzuki, who chairs the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. In an interview carried in the September 24 Sankei Shimbun , Suzuki notes clearly: “Prime Minister Hatoyama has asked for my cooperation in moving the northern territories issue toward resolution.”
Suzuki is known for having worked on northern territory issues with Masaru Sato, then a senior analyst at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under three prime ministers—Ryutaro Hashimoto, Keizo Obuchi, and Yoshiro Mori. He later had an antagonistic relationship with Makiko Tanaka, minister for foreign affairs under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Around the same time he came under suspicion of malfeasance, and when criminal charges were brought against him he effectively disappeared from the Russo-Japanese diplomatic stage. With the launch of the Hatoyama administration, however, Suzuki appears poised to return to the forefront of discussions with Moscow on the return of the islands claimed by Japan.
If Suzuki does take the lead in the Hatoyama administration's negotiations with Russia to regain the islands, how can we expect matters to unfold? Suzuki himself presents a possible outline in his Sankei interview:
In other words, this is a “return two, discuss two” approach: based on the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, Japan will first regain the islands of Habomai and Shikotan, whose return is spelled out there. At that point the nations can sign an intermediate treaty of some sort. Building next on the Tokyo Declaration, which clearly states that ownership of the territory is unresolved, the parties can continue bilateral talks toward the return of Kunashiri and Etorofu.
One key characteristic of this approach is its insistence on the eventual return of all the territory in question. This sets it apart from the “half the territory” and “3.5 islands” resolution strategies brought forward under the Aso administration. The problem with this approach, however, lies in the risk that Russia might respond to the return of the first set of islands by treating the matter as having reached a conclusion.
On October 17 Seiji Maehara, the minister in the Hatoyama cabinet responsible for Okinawan and northern territories issues, visited Cape Nosappu in Nemuro, Hokkaido, the closest point to the Habomai Islands. After observing the isles, Maehara stated to the reporters accompanying him: “Historically and internationally speaking, the northern territories are an integral part of Japan. They were occupied illegally in the turmoil just after the end of the war. We must continue demanding the return of these islands.”
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to this by stating: “It is regrettable that unacceptable, inappropriate, and legally meaningless remarks steeped in a confrontational spirit were made in Japan again despite the positive statements of willingness by the new Japanese leadership to vigorously promote relations with Russia, as well as the constructive nature of the September meeting in New York between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.” 3
To be noted here is Suzuki's response to Maehara’s speech. On October 20, he pointed out: “His use of the term ‘occupied illegally’ was a mistake. Russia admits that these islands are disputed territory. A statement like his [made ahead of the Russo-Japanese summit meeting scheduled for November in Singapore] could very well be taken the wrong way.” Suzuki's criticism went on: “If he believes he can say provocative things and be taken seriously he's sorely mistaken. Diplomacy is something to be done quietly.”
The Medvedev administration is certain to be watching these Japanese discussions with interest. We can be sure that the Russian government is now gathering and analyzing information on whether there will be further differences of opinion on the best negotiating stance for the northern territories issues within the Hatoyama administration and the DPJ, as well as on who is actually in charge of the process in Japan. ( Translated from a report in Japanese published on October 21, 2009 )
1 Quote taken from: http://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/4ff6731bd78ae22bc325762a001e86df?OpenDocument