Japan said today that it is temporarily recalling its ambassador to Moscow a day after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited a disputed group of islands that are claimed by both countries.
The move by Tokyo raises the stakes in a territorial dispute that has been going on since the closing days of World War II when Moscow seized the four southern most islands in a 56-island archipelago -- known in Russia as the Southern Kuriles and in Japan as the Northern Territories.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told journalists today that Tokyo is carefully considering its options and wants to get more information about possible diplomatic responses from its ambassador to Russia.
"We have to think once again about what sort of measures would be effective against this sort of action," he said. "However, I don't believe that it's a problem that only has one solution."
Earlier, Japan's top government spokesman said leaders from the two countries were still likely to hold talks at a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) on November 13-14.
However, Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said no final decision on those meetings has been made.
On November 1, Maehara summoned Russia's Ambassador Mikhail Bely to protest Medvedev's visit to one of the four disputed islands. It was the first visit by a Russian leader to the islands since they were occupied by Soviet forces in the closing days of World War II. The territorial dispute has prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing a peace treaty to formally end the war.
In remarks that could intensify the dispute, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned the summons of Ambassador Bely.
"The reaction of the Japanese side to President Medvedev's visit to the Kuriles was unacceptable," Lavrov said. "It is our land and the Russian president visited Russian land."
He also said Medvedev has plans to visit other islands disputed with Japan.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan responded by saying that Japan has taken the consistent position that the islands are Japanese territory and that Medvedev's visit was "regrettable."
Lavrov says Moscow does not want a reignited territorial dispute to hamper economic ties with Japan.
"We are not going to take any steps that may hamper Russian-Japanese cooperation," he said. "But, of course, Japan has to make the necessary conclusions. I repeat, such demarches are unacceptable."
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, speaking later on November 1, said it is high time Russia and Japan resolve their dispute and reach a peace accord.
"We are quite aware of the dispute," Crowley said. "We do back Japan regarding the Northern Territories, but this is why the United States for a number of years has encouraged Japan and Russia to negotiate an actual peace treaty regarding these and other issues."
The row comes as Tokyo also is struggling to ease tensions with Beijing over a group of Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that also are claimed by China.
Strained relations between Japan and China have raised concerns about the fallout for business because of deep economic links between Asia's top two economies.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week urged both Beijing and Tokyo to be calm and offered to host trilateral talks. But China today rejected the idea of U.S.-brokered three way-talks with Japan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement today that the dispute remains an issue for Beijing and Tokyo alone to deal with. The statement also rejected Clinton's suggestion that a U.S. security treaty with Tokyo covers the islands -- which China calls the Diaoyu and Japan calls the Senkaku.
Undeterred by the criticism, Clinton told reporters in Malaysia today that Tokyo and Beijing need to discuss their differences. Clinton repeated that Washington has no position on which country holds ultimate sovereignty over the islands but said U.S. security obligations to Japan have been consistent for many decades.
Washington is concerned that territorial disputes in Asian waters could imperil strategic international shipping lanes and has signaled it would back regional allies, including Japan, if tensions were to escalate.
China has benefited from the stability brought by the U.S.-Japan defense alliance but also sees it as a tool for containing China.
Chinese officials also are troubled that Clinton's initial offer was made during a joint appearance with the Japanese foreign minister.
written by Ron Synovitz, with agency reports