Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to Russia today at the start of a four-day official visit. Tomorrow, Koizumi and Russian President Vladimir Putin are due to sign a declaration laying out a framework for broad cooperation on a range of issues from diplomacy to economics. But bilateral ties continue to be stymied by a long-standing dispute over four islands annexed by Moscow at the end of World War II, and analysts say no breakthrough can be expected on this issue.
Prague, 9 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi today begins his first official visit to Russia since assuming office two years ago. Accompanied by a delegation of senior government officials, Koizumi will hold talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and will also visit the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk.
It has been nearly four years since the last official visit to Russia by a Japanese premier -- meaning the Koizumi-Putin talks will be closely watched for signs of progress in the two neighbors' difficult relations.
Since the end of World War II, a dispute over Moscow's annexation of the four southernmost Kurile Islands has marred bilateral relations, preventing both sides from concluding a formal peace treaty and making significant Japanese investment in Russia impossible for domestic political reasons. Japan, which refers to the four islands as its northern territories, has long demanded their return before relations with Russia can be normalized.
As Hisane Masaki, foreign news editor of the "Japan Times," told RFE/RL from Tokyo, there was a point two to three years ago when both sides appeared to be close to a compromise on the issue. But once again, domestic politics intruded. "Until shortly before Koizumi took office, Japan and Russia seemed to be making some progress toward resolving their territorial dispute. It's been the biggest issue between the two countries after World War II. But everything changed shortly before Koizumi took office because of the bribery scandal involving a veteran politician of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party."
That politician was Suzuki Muneo, described by analysts as wielding unequalled influence on Japanese foreign policy. As Masaki explained, until his downfall, which eventually led to his arrest last year on embezzlement charges, Muneo had pushed for a settlement with Russia over the disputed islands, going against entrenched hard-line sentiment. "Despite some objections from within the government and the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Muneo had tried to push for a compromise deal with Moscow to resolve the territorial dispute. His compromise plan was widely interpreted by many people here in Japan as paving the way for Japan to compromise with Moscow and agree to the return of only two of the four islands. So Moscow welcomed the compromise plan."
Now that Muneo has traded his parliamentary seat for a jail cell, however, negotiations have stopped and Tokyo has reverted to its former demand that all islands be returned.
It is against this backdrop that Koizumi and his team venture to Moscow, prompting observers to downplay any possibility of a breakthrough on this central issue. But other geopolitical factors, especially the escalating crisis over North Korea's nuclear program, now preoccupy both sides even more and this could prompt Tokyo and Moscow to draw closer.
Moscow-based journalist Sergei Blagov, a specialist on Asian affairs, expects discussions about Korea to take precedence over other issues during the Russo-Japanese talks. "I would note that due to the current international situation the problem of North Korea's nuclear program will occupy a significant part of the discussions. And since both sides are interested in the stability of Northeast Asia and are keen to avoid any unexpected developments from Pyongyang, this could -- if not entirely, at least to a great degree -- relegate to the back burner discussions on the thorny issue of bilateral relations."
Getting North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to renounce his nuclear and missile ambitions has become Koizumi's no. 1 foreign policy priority, while winning freedom for the families of Japanese abductees who remain in North Korea has become a top domestic concern. Koizumi's stopover in Khabarovsk is meant to emphasize the importance Tokyo attaches to resolving the Korea crisis. And Koizumi is expected to seek Moscow's help.
Hisane Masaki said, "Japan expects Russia to exert more influence over North Korea. As you know, Russia and China are long-standing allies of North Korea and as you know, Mr. Putin is the world leader who has met most often with the North Korean leader, Mr. Kim [Jong-il]."
Officially, the centerpiece of Koizumi's visit is due to be the signing of an "action plan," a road map laying out a framework for broad cooperation on a range of issues from diplomacy to economics. Does the signing of such a document mean Tokyo is ready to adopt a more pragmatic approach to ties with Moscow, decoupling the issue of investment from the politics of the two countries' territorial dispute? Not really, according to Blagov.
"That's probably too bold a forecast. It's more likely that Japan will limit itself to more or less symbolic actions. One possibility, according to press reports, is that the Japanese prime minister and members of his delegation will discuss reviving Japan's assistance program aimed at decommissioning nuclear reactors from Russian submarines in the Far East. The program, initiated in the 1990s, is continuing, but due to various technical reasons, it is not being realized to its full potential. In this way, Japan can show its intention to cooperate with Russia, but without the concrete obligations stemming from a broad bilateral agreement."
News reports say the two sides may sign an agreement during Koizumi's visit on building a gas pipeline from Russia to Japan or that Tokyo may back plans to build an oil pipeline from Siberia to Russia's Far Eastern port of Nakhodka, from where the oil could be transported by tankers to Japan. But here again, Blagov does not expect any concrete sums to be discussed.
"Again, we can draw a similar analogy here to the possible agreement on reviving submarine decommissioning. Plans for an oil pipeline through China, Korea, with an underwater part stretching to Japan or a gas pipeline from Sakhalin Island [to Japan] -- all these plans have been talked about at least since the mid-1990s. And even if an agreement of intent is signed or tabled for discussion, it's hard to imagine that Japan -- even private Japanese companies -- will invest significantly in these projects, unless some resolution is found of the territorial dispute."
At present, bilateral trade between Russia and Japan averages just $2.5 billion a year. Japan's annual trade with China averages $80 billion -- a telling comparison.