Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Japan from Sept. 3 through Sept. 5, and is expected to focus on the signing of a bilateral peace treaty during his discussions with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.
But on July 27, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Hiromu Nonaka dropped a bombshell by hinting that a treaty does not have to follow a resolution of the dispute over the Northern Territories, as the disputed islands in the Kiril chain are known here, and that these two issues could be considered in parallel.
Nonaka's comments raised the possibility that a territorial settlement could be decoupled from the signing of a peace accord, and that territorial talks could be postponed. He was implying that Japan might waver from the gist of the Tokyo Declaration, which was issued in October 1993 during former President Boris Yeltsin's visit to Japan.
The Tokyo Declaration proposed that a peace treaty should only be reached after both sides had worked out their differences on territorial issues. Both Japan and Russia have been negotiating ever since on this basis.
In November 1997, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Yeltsin signed the Krasnoyarsk accord, which stipulated that both Japan and Russia would strive to sign a peace treaty by the end of the year 2000 based on the principles outlined in the Tokyo Declaration.
At the Kawana Summit in April 1998, Japan offered to recognize Russian administration of the disputed islands for a fixed period of time as a condition for a settlement. But in November of that year, Russia proposed at the Moscow Summit that a territorial settlement not be linked to the efforts to sign a peace treaty. Japan will get a chance to respond formally to the Russian proposal during next month's talks.
Nonaka appeared to endorse the Russian proposal last month with comments that could be construed to mean that Japan has given up on its territorial demands. But as a leader of the ruling party, he should know better than to send out misleading signals with the summit only weeks away.
Any peace treaty between Japan and Russia will have to be based on a settlement of the territorial dispute and the establishment of national borders. A peace treaty in the absence of a territorial settlement would be meaningless to Japan.
When Putin met with Mori immediately after the conclusion of the Kyushu-Okinawa Summit, he proposed that both countries sign a tentative peace treaty and shelve the territorial issue. Nonaka's subsequent statements may have given Russia the impression that it is now willing to accept such a postponement.
It is unfortunate that there is little likelihood that the territorial issue will be resolved during the 20th century. But this does not mean that Japan should take steps to encourage the decoupling of the territorial issue and peace treaty.
Japan and Russia are unlikely to establish truly friendly relations by signing a peace treaty which does not resolve outstanding territorial issues. Though the year-end is quickly approaching, there is no need to rush matters. It is more important to uphold the basic principles outlined in the Tokyo Declaration.