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Chilly relations prevents inking of Japan-Russia peace treaty

By Cai Hong | China Daily | Updated: 2018-03-26 07:56

A cold spell with snow put spring on hold in Tokyo on Wednesday, the day Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov landed in Japan on a visit. His Japanese counterpart Taro Kono ascribed the snow to the Russian visitor. "Since we did not interfere in your elections, we decided to intervene in the weather," Lavrov replied in a lighter vein.

Jest aside, a chill has indeed descended upon Japan-Russia relations.

Talking about Japan's Aegis Ashore system, Lavrov said it is effectively becoming part of the US missile defense network and will have a direct effect on Russia's security. Despite Russia's opposition, Japan has decided to buy two land-based Aegis Ashore systems to add to its current two-tier missile defense system consisting of Patriot missiles and Aegis-equipped destroyers, ostensibly to enhance its capability to intercept ballistic missiles from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Distrust runs deep in Russia-Japan relations, notwithstanding a flurry of diplomatic activities.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems eager to impress Russian President Vladimir Putin-they have held 20 meetings in recent years. Abe believes a good personal relationship with Putin can help Japan get back the four islands which the Soviet Union and then Russia has held since the end of World War II. The islets, off Japan's Hokkaido, are called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia. The territorial dispute has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty.

In December 2016, Abe invited Putin to a hot spring resort in his hometown of Nagato. They agreed to begin discussing joint economic projects on the islands. This year the two countries have a public diplomacy initiative, "Japan Year in Russia" and "Russia Year in Japan", aimed at boosting cross-cultural links.

But there has been no progress beyond the diplomatic bonhomie.

The discussions on joint economic development projects on the disputed islands have barely advanced because of the sovereignty issue. Japan wants the projects to be conducted under a special legal framework rather than Russian law. This, as Japan hopes, will provide a bridgehead enabling the subsequent expansion of Japanese influence on the islands, an attempt Russian critics have termed Japan's "Trojan Horse".

Japan's alliance with the United States has alienated Tokyo from Moscow. Japan yielded to the US' pressure and imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014. For Russia, Japan is, first and foremost, a US ally and cannot be trusted to act independently.

So Japan has to walk a tightrope to manage its relations with the US and Russia.

During their meeting on the sidelines of the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in Danang, Vietnam, in November, Putin told Abe that there are lots of questions regarding the peace treaty. "It's not a secret that we also need to look at what commitments Japan has toward its partners in the areas of defense and security, and how that will influence the progress of the negotiating process on the peace treaty," he said.

Moscow, as Putin said, needed to examine what commitments Tokyo has and what it can do, and cannot do, independently. He reminded Abe that maybe the lots of questions cannot be addressed in just one year.

Lavrov was in Japan to discuss preparations for Abe's visit to Russia in May. For Abe, every meeting with Putin offers a chance to break the deadlock in the negotiations on the disputed islands and a peace treaty.

But the signal from Russia is clear. Moscow announced in January that the civilian airport on Iturup, or Etorofu as the Japanese call it, would be shared by the Russian air force, thereby enabling the deployment of combat jets there. The day before Feb 7-Japan's "Northern Territories Day" on which the country officially campaigns for the return of the Russia-held islands-Russia launched a military exercise on the disputed islets.

As Japan has no way to drive away the chill in its relations with Russia, the major breakthroughs that Abe expects are unlikely to happen this year.

The author is China Daily Tokyo bureau chief.

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