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Japan: Analysis From Washington: Possible Agreement On Kurile Islands Augurs Bright Prospects For Russia

Washington, 23 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian government appears be considering a step that could lead not only to a dramatic improvement in its relations with Japan, but also to a reordering of the geopolitics of the Pacific rim.

Tokyo's Asahi Shimbun newspaper reports today (Monday) that a Russian foreign ministry official has said that a 1956 joint Soviet-Japanese declaration calling for the return of several islands both countries claim after the conclusion of a peace treaty is valid.

Specifically, the 1956 document acknowledged continuing Japanese sovereignty over the Habomai islets and the Shikotan island, and said Moscow would end its occupation of them once the two countries had signed a peace treaty.

The Soviet Union seized the islands in August 1945 at the end of World War Two and has held them ever since.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin implicitly recognized the 1956 declaration following his 1993 meetings with Japanese leaders. But according to the Japanese press, an unnamed Russian foreign ministry official has now told a Duma member that the 1956 declaration is definitive.

Neither the Japanese nor the Russian government has confirmed this newspaper report. And it is important to note that Tokyo newspapers in the past have made predictions on this issue only to have events prove them wrong.

But there are three reasons to think that the report itself is correct, even if it does not lead to the conclusion of a new relationship between Moscow and Japan.

First, Yeltsin is due in Japan April 11-13 for a summit meeting. He is unlikely to want to raise expectations that his visit cannot possibly meet.

Second, the report itself suggests a compromise in the long-running dispute: Even if Asahi Shimbun is correct, Moscow would return only part of the disputed territory.

And third, the report may have been leaked both to test Russian opinion on this issue and to put pressure on Japan to become more forthcoming in its relations with Moscow.

But if the two sides could agree on ending this dispute, that would have enormous consequences both for those two countries and for the Pacific rim as a whole.

Until recently, Tokyo had maintained that it could not move to make major investments in Russia until the Northern Territories, as Japan calls the islands in dispute, were returned.

But over the last two years, the Japanese government has sought to improve ties by suggesting that future relations between Moscow and Tokyo should not depend exclusively on the return of the islands.

That has allowed the Japanese government to assist Japanese firms to invest more in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

But if the two sides do in fact reach an agreement at the upcoming summit in Kawana, then Japanese investment in Russia would likely skyrocket and Japanese ties with Moscow would improve across the board.

And such a warming of ties would not only give Boris Yeltsin a major diplomatic victory but it would dramatically change the shape of geopolitics in the Pacific.

Russia would have expanded ties with Japan, an arrangement that would allow it to take a harder line with China. And Moscow would expand its influence throughout the Pacific rim.

At the same time, Japan would likely look ever more to Russia, a shift that would have consequences for its ties to its traditional allies like the United States.

Obviously, a single news report by itself cannot support such sweeping conclusions. But the timing and content of it indicate that other confirming reports are likely to follow.

To the extent that happens, the news being reported in Tokyo today is likely to prove far more important than an initial glance at it might suggest.