Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is visiting Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin and his successor-to-be Dmitry Medvedev. The two countries have still not drawn up a peace agreement regarding their dispute over the Kuril Islands but they want to develop bilateral trade and energy cooperation nonetheless.
Japan and Russia have yet to agree on four islands of the Kurill archipelago, which they both lay claim to
Originally, the Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda was due to visit Germany, France, Great Britain and Russia to prepare for the upcoming G8 summit on Hokkaido. But he has had to cut short his journey to attend an important vote in parliament. So he will only visit Russia this time.
A spokesman from the Japanese foreign ministry explained that there were three reasons for the trip: “To establish the personal relationship with President Putin and the next president Medvedey. To prepare for the G8 summit meeting and to raise the Japan-Russia relationship to a higher level.”
Prime Minister Fukuda is due to meet incumbent President Putin on Saturday to discuss bilateral matters. Whereas he will discuss matters pertaining to the upcoming G8 summit with president-elect Medvedev.
Kurill Island dispute casts shadow
There is one thorny issue threatening to cast a shadow on the talks -- a set of largely uninhabited islands in the Kuril archipelago, that both countries lay claim to. Japan says the four disputed islands, which lie northwest of Hokkaido, must be returned. But Russia, which annexed them at the end of World War Two, is holding firmly onto them.
Ahead of his trip to Russia, Prime Minister Fukuda visited the governor of Hokkaido to assure her he would put all his energy into obtaining the return of the islands. But the Japanese foreign ministry has chosen to play down the matter -- especially because nobody expects an agreement to be found.
"Regarding the territorial issue, what I want to emphasise is that the Japan-Russia relationship is not only the territorial issue,” the foreign ministry spokesman said ahead of Prime Minister Fukuda’s trip. “That is an important aspect of the relationship but we do have other interests; and they will grow bigger if Russia becomes more engaged in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Stepping up energy cooperation
Energy is one of those interests. Japan, with its increasingly high energy demands, hopes to cooperate more with Russia in the future to meet them. The first oil deliveries from their joint Sakhalin II oil and gas development project are due to start this year.
Also in the pipeline is a glass fibre cable that will run from Japan to Europe via Siberia and will improve communications systems. Japanese firms are also keen to build up the Trans-Siberian Railway and sell Russia its Shinkansen technology -- used on its high-speed Bullet trains.
In 2003, former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi and President Putin initiated a Russo-Japanese plan of action. Their trade volume has since multiplied by four and over 300 Japanese companies are now active on the Russian market. Nonetheless, at this stage in time only 1 percent of Japan’s exports go to Russia.
If Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda’s visit to Russia manages to boost economic relations between the two countries, it will likely be considered a success in Tokyo and Moscow -- even if the question of the disputed islands is not resolved.