Japan filed a furious protest on Friday over the Russian defence minister’s snap trip to a chain of disputed islands that have marred the two sides’ relations since the end of World War II.
Russian Defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov’s tour of the Kuril Islands came just two months after President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian leader to visit a region that is still known as the Northern Territories in Japan.
Medvedev’s unprecedented trip put a new chill in the two neighours’ relations and was to have been the subject of delicate talks during Japanese Foreign minister Seiji Maehara’s February 11 visit to Moscow.
But Maehara found himself officially addressing the subject on Friday when he summoned Russian Ambassador Mikhail Bely for a meeting in which Japan expressed its “extreme” disappointment with the defence minister’s trip.
“It is extremely regrettable,” Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan said. “We have firmly conveyed our resolve on the matter through the foreign ministry.”
Medvedev tried to defuse the dispute by telling a Russian Security Council meeting that the visit was not meant as a show of force.
“All of these visits relate to the same thing — we have to devote attention to the Kuril Islands’ development,” Medvedev said in televised remarks.
But he stressed once again that the islands “are Russian territories that must develop according to a very obvious scenario — just like all the other regions of Russia.”
He said Russia remained open to diplomatic negotiations with Japan that could eventually result in the signature of a peace treaty formally ending World War II.
But Medvedev insisted that in the future his government must “devote more attention to this particular part of the Russian Federation.”
Medvedev’s Kurils visit started a chain of such trips that also included tours of the islands by First deputy prime Minster Igor Shuvalov and Regional Development minister Viktor Basargin.
The decades-long impasse has prevented the two sides from developing full trade relations and produced few strategies over how they can overcome their differences.
The Japanese foreign minister seemed particularly critical of the Russian defence minister’s tour.
“It happened when I’m trying to develop Japan-Russia relations, including the resolution of the territorial issue,” Maehara said. “Such a visit is like pouring cold water on those efforts.”
But like Medvedev, the Japanese prime minister also said his country was ready for more talks.
“We want to continue negotiations (with Russia) patiently by adhering to our basic policy to settle the territorial issue between Japan and Russia and conclude a peace treaty,” Kan said.
The dispute surrounds the southernmost four islands, two of which Serdyukov visited on Friday. Television footage showed him greeting the troops while news reports said that he also inspected a grocery store and a bakery.
The Russian defence minister said he came to ensure that the region’s 18th machine gun and artillery division was fully equipped with the latest issue of weapons.
“I think that we will draw up plans for replacing weapons and military hardware in this division,” news agencies quoted Serdyukov as saying.
“The appropriate decisions will be reached in the near future,” the Russian defence minister said.