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Russia, Japan Looking for Common Ground on Kuril Islands

© Sputnik / Ekaterina Chesnokova / Go to the photo bankA lighthouse at the furthest end of the Yuzhno-Kurilsky cape on the Pacific coast on Kunashir Island of the Greater Kuril Ridge.
A lighthouse at the furthest end of the Yuzhno-Kurilsky cape on the Pacific coast on Kunashir Island of the Greater Kuril Ridge. - Sputnik International
On February 7, when Japan observes Northern Territories Day, Tokyo hosted the first meeting of the Interdepartmental council on cooperation with Russia on the Kuril Islands.

Russian (right) and Japanese national flags - Sputnik International
Japan Forms Interdepartmental Council on Cooperation With Russia on Kurils
The body is headed by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. The council also includes Economic, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko, who is in charge of developing economic cooperation with Russia. Representatives of the Finance Ministry, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, Health, Labour, and Welfare Ministry were also included in the council.

"I would like to ask all interested ministries to start consideration of joint economic projects with Russia, including in fishery, tourism, healthcare and environment protection. Those projects should be economically advantageous for both Japan and Russia," Kishida said opening the meeting.

According to Seko, Russia-Japan joint economic projects on the South Kuril Islands will be based on an eight-point plan proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit to Russia last May.

Different Goals

Kuril Islands - Sputnik International
Japan to Continue Talks With Russia on Southern Kuril Islands – Foreign Minister
A decision on joint economic activities on the Kuril Islands was made during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan in December. The visit resulted in a package of 12 interstate agreements and 68 commercial projects. Tokyo hopes that they would help overcome the deadlock over the Kuril Island territorial dispute.

The dispute over the South Kuril Islands has remained unresolved since the end of WWII.  Japan and Russia have never signed a permanent peace treaty after World War II due to a disagreement over four islands, which Russia calls the Southern Kurils and Japan the Northern Territories. The disputed islands, located in the Sea of Okhotsk, were claimed by Soviet forces at the end of the war.

"Consultations on joint economic activities will be a major positive step towards a peace agreement. The fact that for the first time in 71 years Japan is involved in developing the four islets is very important," Kishida said.

Russia-Japan economic projects on the Kuril Islands should be considered in a political context, according to Taisuke Abiru, a specialist in Russian politics and expert of the Valdai international discussion club.

December 16, 2016. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, during a joint Russia-Japan business forum in Tokyo. - Sputnik International
Putin's Visit to Japan Strengthens Ties, Leaves Uncertainty Over Kuril Islands
The first cooperation talks between Moscow and Tokyo are scheduled for March. In late-April, Abe will visit Russia and in September he will attend the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.

"There are two approaches to organize joint economic activities. The first one is Russian. Russian wants to designate the priority projects and create the legal basis for their implementation. The second, Japanese, approach is that an agreement on economic activities is expected to help resolve the Kuril problem and sign a peace treaty," Abiru told RIA Novosti.

Moscow agrees that joint economic projects can be the key to a peaceful agreement. At the same time, Russia is not inclined to connect such cooperation to the settlement of the territorial dispute.

"We’re not talking about some exchange or some sale, we are talking about finding a solution where neither of the parties would feel defeated or a loser," Putin told Bloomberg, prior to his talks with Abe in September.

Tourism, Fishery, Healthcare

Despite the political differences, both Russia and Japan are resolved to develop joint economic projects in the region.

"The most promising area of cooperation is the fishing industry, including fish farming. Japan has significant experience in the field. Other advantageous areas of cooperation are healthcare and tourism," Abiru pointed out.

Yuzhno-Kurilsk village on Kunashir Island - Sputnik International
Sakhalin Preparing Plan For Kuril Islands Joint Economic Activity With Japan
Japan has a number of advanced technologies enabling the advantageous use of small islet territories, according to Valery Mironov, deputy head of the Institute for Development, at the Russian Higher School of Economics.

According to the expert, tourism could be the priority field of economic cooperation between Russia and Japan.

"Tokyo hopes that an increasing number of tourists will start travelling there. There will be a lot of those willing to see the Northern Territories. So, they will need infrastructure, including hotels and roads," Mironov said.

The assumption was echoed by Anatoly Koshkin, a professor at the Institute for Eastern Countries. According to him, it would be a mistake to industrialize the region and the unique islands should be first of all preserved as a national park.

"No large factories should be built on the South Kurils. Infrastructure should be developed there, first of all for tourists – hotels, recreational centers and thermal resorts," Koshkin told RIA Novosti.

He added that Russia and Japan may also cooperate in fishery and developing healthcare infrastructure on the islands.

Stumbling Block

The new Bastion coastal defense missile system during a drill in Primorsky Territory - Sputnik International
Russia Has the Right to Defend Kurils, Japan Has the Right to Have a Voice
Both countries are interested in joint projects on the Kuril Islands, since Russia wants to develop its territories and Japan looks for new investment destinations.

However, Russia and Japan need to resolve a serious problem regarding jurisdiction in the area. Tokyo wants Japanese companies and nationals to work on the islands in accordance with Japanese laws. Japan considered the South Kuril Islands as its sovereign territories and does not recognize Russia’s sovereignty.

As a compromise, Tokyo may consider a package of laws specially worked out for the islands. However, this idea is opposed by Moscow.

"A special law code would mean that Russia recognizes the extraterritorial status of the islands. This contradicts the Russian constitution," Koshkin pointed out.


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