OSLO (Reuters) - Russia said on Tuesday President Dmitry Medvedev planned more trips to a group of islands seized by the Soviet Union from Japan at the end of World War Two, deepening a serious rift with Tokyo.
Japan said it was recalling its ambassador from Moscow temporarily after Medvedev this week became the first Russian leader to visit the desolate islands, known as the Southern Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan.
The dispute has added to the pressure on Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who is grappling with a divided parliament and is already under fire for what critics say was his mishandling of a separate territorial dispute with China.
The Kremlin has made no comment on the row since Medvedev’s visit on Monday to Kunashir island, but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Medvedev planned further trips to the disputed isles.
“I had a conversation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this morning. He expressed satisfaction with his visit to Kunashir and said that he plans to visit the other islands of the Lesser Kuriles,” Lavrov told reporters in Oslo.
The 65-year-old dispute over the desolate islands, which have rich fishing grounds and possibly greater mineral wealth, is threatening to overshadow a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders which Japan will host in mid-November.
Kan was still likely to meet Medvedev at the summit, a Japanese government spokesman said. But Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said nothing had been decided yet.
“We have a territorial problem and that needs to be solved,” Maehara told a news conference, where he announced the temporary recall of Japan’s ambassador from Moscow. The ambassador was later seen leaving the embassy by a Reuters photographer.
The dispute with the Kremlin means Japan is facing stormy relations with China and Russia, its two biggest neighbors.
Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated sharply in September after Japan detained a Chinese trawler captain whose vessel collided with Japanese patrol ships near the chain of disputed islands, called Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyu in China.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who last week urged both Beijing and Tokyo to be calm and offered to host trilateral talks to bring relations back to an even keel, said the offer still stood, although they could discuss other issues as well.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu dismissed the proposal as “a U.S. idea,” adding that it was wrong to include the disputed islands in any U.S.-Japan defense agreements.
“It must be pointed out that the Diaoyu islands are Chinese territory, and the dispute between China and Japan over them is one between the two countries,” he said in a statement on the Foreign Ministry’s website www.mfa.gov.cn.
Critics within Kan’s own party as well as the opposition accuse Kan of caving in to Chinese demands by allowing the release of the captain.
That perception has contributed to a fall in his popularity ratings to about 40 percent after just five months in office.
Japanese Economy Minister Banri Kaieda expressed concern that the dispute with Moscow could affect commercial relations with the world’s biggest energy producer.
“Japan and Russia have deep ties when it comes to energy and natural resources development,” Kaieda said after a cabinet meeting. “I’m worried about the impact on economic relations from the Russian president’s visit to the Northern Territories.”
Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa, Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Ben Blanchard and Huang Yan in Beijing and Arshad Mohammed in Kuala Lumpur; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow; editing by Michael Watson and Alex Richardson