Photo/IllutrationSnow-capped peaks on Kunashiri island, part of the Northern Territories, as seen from the Notsuke Peninsula of eastern Hokkaido, foreground, in November 2016 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The first round of new peace treaty talks with Russia, held on Jan. 14 in Tokyo, did not bode well for Japan.

Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow and agreed on a new framework of such discussions to be undertaken by their foreign ministers.

But what emerged clearly from the latest negotiations was Russia's unchanged hard-line attitude.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov demanded, in his meeting with Taro Kono, his Japanese counterpart, that Japan acknowledge Russia's sovereignty over all four disputed islands off Hokkaido.

Lavrov even complained about the Japanese government's use of "Northern Territories" in reference to the islands. The atmosphere of the meeting was hardly conducive to bridging mutual differences and normalizing the relationship.

Abe has stressed repeatedly that he and Putin will together settle the territorial dispute, once and for all. But his patent eagerness to succeed may have backfired, only to embolden Russia to play hardball.

Abe and Putin are scheduled to meet next week. We hope Abe will not lose sight of the real objective of the new round of peace treaty talks--to ensure peace and stability for Japan and the surrounding region--in his haste to achieve results.

NO EXPLANATION OFFERED

During their previous meeting in November, Abe and Putin agreed to speed up territorial negotiations based on the 1956 joint Japan-Soviet declaration, which mentioned only Habomai and Shikotan out of the four disputed islands.

Since the November talks, Kono has refused to spell out the Japanese government's basic position on the issue, which is that all four islands are inherently Japanese territory. This may very well be interpreted to mean that Japan has given up on reclaiming all four islands.

Obviously, not revealing one's hand during negotiations is a standard tactic in diplomacy. However, a crucial territorial policy is something that cannot be changed without the public's knowledge.

The government has a duty to offer a clear explanation to the Japanese people.

In the past, the government resorted to all sorts of compromises in seeking a breakthrough.

Toward the end of the Soviet era, Japan dropped its demand for a "package return" of the four islands, and switched to a policy of "dealing flexibly with the timing and conditions of the return, once the four islands have been confirmed as belonging to Japan."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Japanese government told then-President Boris Yeltsin, "Once a peace treaty has been concluded (between Japan and Russia) and national borders have been set to the north of the four islands, Japan will not seek the islands' return unless otherwise agreed upon."

Throughout these years, Japan stuck to the position that its demand for the return of the four islands was righteous.

Backing off from this position is fundamentally different from any compromise made in the past.

FUTURE-ORIENTED VISION

It should be noted, however, that postwar administrations did not always insist on the return of all four islands.

Under the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, which Japan signed with 48 nations, including the United States, Japan abandoned its claims to the Kurile Islands.

According to the Foreign Ministry's understanding, indicated during Diet deliberations that ratified the San Francisco Treaty, the Kuriles included the islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri.

And in the negotiation process leading up to the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration that officially ended the state of war between the two countries, some people within the Japanese government favored settling for the return of only Habomai and Shikotan.

But the Liberal Democratic Party, which came into power in 1955 through the merger of two major conservative parties against the backdrop of the Cold War, positioned the "return of the four islands" as its party policy.

The United States then applied pressure on Japan by threatening to refuse to return Okinawa if Japan compromised with the Soviet Union by demanding only two of the islands back.

Against this backdrop, Japan reversed its position, renouncing its 1951 understanding that the Kuriles included Etorofu and Kunashiri.

In negotiating with Russia in the days ahead, Japan needs to face this aspect of Cold War history squarely and untangle the kinks, so to speak.

Russia is now demanding that Japan acknowledge unequivocally that the four islands became legitimate Soviet territory as a result of World War II.

The Russian stance conflicts totally with the Japanese assertion that the Soviet Union entered into war with Japan in violation of its neutrality agreement and illegally occupied the four islands.

Japan's wisdom is being tested on how it will bring a future-oriented vision into the new peace treaty framework by overcoming gaps in the two countries' respective perceptions of history.

RUSSIA A LAW UNTO ITSELF

During peace treaty negotiations in the post-Cold War 1990s, Japan softened its stance toward Russia because the latter, "newly born," came to uphold principles, such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

But in the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula five years ago, Russia amply manifested its readiness to overstep its boundary with its neighbor, even though Russia itself had set the boundary.

The Russian "rationale" is that there is nothing wrong with dispatching its own military abroad, if the purpose is to protect Russian citizens there.

Many Russians are living on the four disputed islands today. Any peace treaty that fails to firmly define permanent national boundaries may well result in flawed national security, and will, therefore, defeat its own purpose.

Abe reportedly told Putin that Japan will not allow U.S. military installations on any of the islands after they are returned to Japan.

But national defense is a matter of sovereignty. To make a casual verbal promise on such an issue shows a serious lack of judgment.

The global environment surrounding Japan is becoming increasingly elusive. With the United States caught up in President Donald Trump's "America first" policy and China going ahead with arms expansion, the importance of stabilizing Japan's relations with Russia is beyond dispute.

However, rushing into any compromise with Russia--which is currently under U.S. and European sanctions--may well make Japan appear, in the eyes of the world, to have endorsed Russia's illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

Moreover, if Abe forges ahead with an eye to achieving results during his term as prime minister or before the Upper House election in summer, he is bound to be taken advantage of by Russia. And that will go down in history as a grievous mistake that will surely come back to haunt the nation.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 16