On November 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in Singapore and agreed to advance negotiations on a peace treaty based on the 1956 Soviet-Japanese joint declaration, the only document recognized by both countries.
Same day, Putin said that his next meeting with the Japanese prime minister would take place at the G20 summit that will be held on November 30 — December 1. On Wednesday, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary confirmed that Abe would meet with Putin in Argentina. According to Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov, the two leaders will discuss the establishment of а mechanism for negotiations on the Kuril Islands.
The fact that Japan and Russia have never signed a permanent peace treaty after the end of World War II has long been a stumbling block in bilateral relations. The main issue standing in the way of a treaty is an agreement concerning a group of four islands that both countries claim — Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai, collectively referred to as the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan.
On October 19, 1956, Soviet Union and Japan signed the Joint Declaration on ending the state of war and the restoration of diplomatic and consular relations. The Soviet leadership decided to note in the document that in meeting the wishes of Japan and taking into account the interests of the Japanese state, Moscow agrees to transfer the islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan, however, the transfer itself was meant to be made after the conclusion of a peace treaty between the parties.
After the conclusion of the Japanese-US security treaty in 1960, which still remains in force and stipulates Washington’s right to place its military bases on Japanese soil, the Soviet Union annulled the commitments made in the 1956 declaration.
Since then talks have been stalling due to the unwillingness of the both sides to compromise — neither on the sovereignty of the disputed islands, nor on the timeline of a possible transfer of the two disputed islets, Habomai and Shikotan. Most lately, during the Eastern Economic Forum in September, Putin proposed to sign a peace treaty without preconditions by the end of 2018, but the Japanese side responded that it would maintain its position that the peace treaty with Russia could be concluded only after the settlement of the Kuril islands dispute.
Abe’s latest announcement about stepping up negotiations with Russia based on the 1956 declaration, under which the transfer of the two islands should take place after signing a peace treaty, might be perceived as his readiness to compromise, Associate Professor and Academic Program Coordinator for International Affairs at the Temple University Japan Campus James D.J. Brown told Sputnik.
'Abe's agreement in Singapore to accelerate peace treaty talks on the basis of the 1956 Joint Declaration does indicate a new willing to compromise. This is because the 1956 Joint Declaration makes no mention of the larger two islands of Iturup and Kunashir (Etorofu and Kunashiri in Japanese). It is also notable that Abe has stopped making public demands for the return of four islands. He therefore seems to have given up all hope of all four islands ever being returned to Japanese sovereignty,' Brown said.
According to the expert, Abe might be now pursuing the so-called 'two plus alpha' option.
'This means that Abe is seeking the transfer of Shikotan and Habomai to Japanese sovereignty after the signature of a peace treaty. In addition, while Iturup and Kunashir would remain under Russian sovereignty, Japan is seeking agreement on a special system of visa-free access and joint economic projects on these two islands (this is the 'alpha'),' Brown said.
Valery Kistanov, the head of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, argued in his comments to Sputnik that Tokyo’s overall position on the issue had not changed.
'"I believe that the Japanese position has not changed fundamentally … Having confirmed the validity of the 1956 declaration in Singapore, Shinzo Abe has taken a more flexible position saying that Japan agreed to receive these two islands, sign a peace treaty and then continue negotiations on the territorial sovereignty of the remaining two islands — Kunashir and Iturup. In other words, they have not abandoned their ultimate goals and hopes to receive all four islands, including the two biggest ones', Kistanov explained.
According to the expert, Russia would not make any further concessions as well.
'We will not agree with this, as we believe that the issue should be settled on the basis of this declaration, we want to make it a closure signing a peace treaty and transferring the two islands', he said.