Japan makes tactical shift on Putin visit

TOKYO, SEPT. 2. Russia's President, Mr Vladimir Putin, arrives in Tokyo on Sunday secure in the knowledge that Japan cannot possibly expect political concessions from Moscow at this time, but if he expects Japan's aid to flow, he will have to agree to a postponement of, not ignore, a Japanese wish list to resolve the territorial issue between the two countries.

After the tragedy of the Russian submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea last month, the Government of Mr Yoshiro Mori made a tactical shift on the handling of the Putin visit. Despite portraying a strong public posture, Japan will not press Mr Putin for immediate concessions on the territorial dispute focussing on the four islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai cluster.

Russia is reluctant to agree to sign any document on the territorial issue. But Japan has decided to seek a formal extension of the rough deadline agreed to by both countries in Krasnoyarsk in November 1997. It remains to be seen if Japan has the clout to get both, Mr Putin's written agreement and some specific deadline.

According to the 1997 agreement, between Mr Ryutaro Hashimoto and Mr Boris Yeltsin, both had decided to ``strive to reach a peace treaty by the end of 2000.'' Since then, Russia's misfortunes, the leadership transition and other factors have altered the picture. The present position is that Japan wants the peace treaty linked to some decision on the islands, whereas Russia is insistent that the islands issue be delinked from the peace treaty.

By postponing the deadline for a solution, Mr Mori hopes to satisfy domestic opinion that he has kept the momentum going for claiming the islands and give Mr Putin some room for manoeuvre at home. At the same time, Japan would stay its ground and use the 1993 Hosokawa-Yeltsin Tokyo Declaration to emphasise that the territorial issue and the peace treaty cannot be delinked.

Russia disagrees with Japan's proposal to specify a time-frame and has suggested that both sides reach an ``early solution.'' Japan's public stance is to insist on the old deadline of 2000, but the extended date might be 2004, when Mr Putin's term in office ends. Mr Mori might insist on an earlier date as he does not wish to convey to a vocal right wing that he is shelving what was the highest priority for the previous two Prime Ministers.

In another pragmatic move that dovetails Russia's needs and Japan's desire to develop closer ties with the Russian Navy and Air Force, if only to keep a closer watch on Sino- Russian military ties, the Mori Government is about to expand its assistance to Russia in the ``undersea'' depths. In 1993, Tokyo had pledged $ 100 millions to help Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Byelorussia dismantle nuclear weapons. Such aid has been given. Last year, Japan worked on providing $ 40 millions to help Russia dismantle about 50 aging and decommissioned SSN nuclear submarines deployed in the Far East.

Officials here have not ruled out taking a bigger step. If Russia requests, Japan is prepared to consider how to render medical help on the Kursk tragedy. Russia's Defence Minister is due in Japan this autumn to reciprocate the Japanese Minister's visit last year. Japan will also help to complete a nuclear waste processing facility in the Russian Far East.

At least three joint statements incorporating 15 documents will be made during Mr Putin's short stay. Among them is a Russian commitment to support Japan's admission to the U.N. Security Council as a permanent member. The rest pertain to scientific, cultural exchanges, energy, issues of intellectual property and issues other than the political dispute on the islands. Mr Putin's focus, for obvious reasons is on Japanese economic assistance, especially for the neglected four islands.

Expressing disappointment at the current level of assistance, the Russian leader in replies to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun's questions clearly linked future political ties to Japanese aid. Mr Putin wants both countries to formally adopt an ongoing project to develop oil and natural gas fields in Sakhalin and a new one to lay a gas pipeline from Russia to Japan. He also hopes that Japan and Russia formally take aboard a project by Russian monopoly United Energy Systems to supply electric power from Sakhalin to Japan.

In Japan, only the more aggressive business houses are willing to invest in Russia in a climate that is neither politically ripe nor are investment conditions secure. The rest insist on riding piggyback on Japanese aid.

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