Govt must present firm strategy to protect Japan’s territory after Russian PM’s visit to Etorofu

It is obvious that Russia intends to make its occupation of the northern territories, which are an inherent part of Japanese territory, a fait accompli. Moves that hamper the resolution of the territorial issue and worsen Japan-Russia relations must not be accepted.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited Etorofu Island, one of the four islands in the northern territories. In spite of Japan’s call to halt the visit, the Russian prime minister pushed ahead with the plan, in an apparent effort to make it clear that Russia will not respond to the demand to return the northern territories. It is a grave violation of Japan’s sovereignty.

Russia has recently notified the Japanese government that it will conduct firing drills in waters around Kunashiri Island in the northern territories. Russia’s revised Constitution, which took effect last year, includes a ban on ceding Russian territory.

The series of moves is aimed at attempting to demonstrate that these islands are Russian territory and entrench Russia’s rule over them.

In 2016, Japan and Russia decided to promote joint economic activities on the four islands on the condition that they would not undermine the legal position of either side. However, they have not been able to come to an agreement on concrete ways to meet the condition, so the joint economic activities have not yet begun in earnest.

Under such circumstances, Mishustin announced a plan to reduce the tax burden on foreign companies investing in the northern territories during his visit to Etorofu. A special zone will be established to promote such investment.

In the Russian Far East, there are many areas where development is slow, and the level of support for the administration is lower than in Moscow and other cities. The special zone plan is apparently aimed at demonstrating the administration’s intention to shore up the economy in the Far East ahead of the election for Russia’s lower house in September.

If Russia were to choose to cooperate with companies in China and South Korea in promoting the special zone plan as a result of the Japan-Russia joint economic activities not proceeding in a way that was advantageous to Moscow, it could serve as a tool to rattle Japan.

In spite of the fact that Japan and Russia had agreed on the joint economic activities, Russia is unilaterally trying to promote Russia-led developments and invite investment. Such moves are incompatible with Japan’s position.

In response to Mishustin’s visit to Etorofu, Takeo Mori, Japanese administrative vice foreign minister, lodged a protest with Russian Ambassador to Japan Mikhail Galuzin, and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi expressed his regret over the issue. In order to make Russian President Vladimir Putin understand Japan’s firm stance on the territorial issue, it may be necessary for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to directly convey the message to Putin.

In September last year, during their first telephone talks, Suga and Putin confirmed their intentions to continue peace treaty negotiations, but there have been no opportunities for them to speak since then, partly due to the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Japan and Russia must break the deadlock by holding meetings between the leaders, and between foreign ministers as soon as possible.

China must be paying close attention to Japan’s handling of the northern territories. If Japan takes an ambiguous approach toward Russia’s unreasonable claims, China’s provocative actions around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture could gain momentum.

Suga should present a firm strategy to protect Japan’s territory.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on July 28, 2021.