MOSCOW (Reuters) - The first visit by a Russian leader to a desolate chain of disputed islands in the Pacific is a clear signal to Japan: follow China’s example if you want to do business with the Kremlin.
President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Kunashir, one of four disputed islands known as the Southern Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, sparked one of the worst diplomatic rows with Japan in decades.
But behind the rhetoric, Russia is signaling to Tokyo that if it wants to get any compromise, Japan’s rulers must sit down and do business with the Kremlin as China’s leaders have so successfully done over the past decade.
“This visit is an element of Russia’s overall strategy to strengthen its position in Asia: Russia wants to underline that it is an Asia power and that it intends to remain so,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal “Russia in Global Affairs.”
In contrast to the stormy ties with Japan, Russia and China say their relations have never been better as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia’s paramount leader, pushes to feed China’s swiftly growing economy with more Russian oil and gas.
Under a 2004 deal approved by Putin, Russia returned to China the Yinlong island and half of Heixiazi island, which are at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri rivers, more than 70 years after they were seized by the Soviet Union.
Soviet troops occupied the islands in 1945 after Kremlin leader Josef Stalin felt he had gained approval at the Yalta Conference from U.S. and British leaders to take them in return for entering the war against Japan.
Japan has tried ever since to push Soviet and then Russian leaders to return the islands, though Moscow has repeatedly taken offence at Japan’s public diplomacy and what it sees as a failure to develop the wider trade relationship.
The last straw came in October when Japan’s foreign minister bluntly warned Medvedev against making the trip ahead of the Kremlin chief’s visit to Japan for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in mid-November.
Russian officials have in private contrasted the rival fortunes of bilateral ties with Japan and China, now Russia’s second largest trading partner after the European Union.
Bilateral trade with Japan totaled just $13.6 billion in the first eight months of 2010, less than half Russia’s $36 billion trade with China, which in 2009 agreed to lend Russian state controlled companies $25 billion.
Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, said that Japan should understand that any discussion of the future of the Kurile islands depended on good will from Moscow.
“Russia has had sovereignty over these islands from the end of World War Two and any discussion of this topic with the Japanese is due only to good will from Russia,” he told Reuters.
“Such jests as we saw today from Japan do nothing but harm to Russian-Japanese relations and move back the potential for any compromise or resolutions.”
Editing by Ralph Boulton