TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan said on Tuesday it was recalling its ambassador to Moscow temporarily after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited a disputed island, raising the stakes in a territorial row.
Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan, struggling with a divided parliament and a fragile economy, has come under fire for what critics claim was his mishandling of a separate territorial dispute with China, and is under pressure to look firm this time.
“We have a territorial problem and that needs to be solved,” Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara told a news conference at which he announced the envoy’s temporary recall.
“But our basic policy of concluding a peace treaty with Russia and strengthening economic relations once that problem is settled remains unchanged,” he added. The dispute prevented Russia and Japan signing a peace treaty ending World War Two.
Medvedev made a brief visit on Monday to one of four island outposts seized by Russia from Japan at the end of the war.
Japan’s top government spokesman said earlier that leaders from Japan and Russia were still likely to hold talks at a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) on November 13-14, although Maehara said nothing had been decided.
Strained relations between Japan and China have raised concerns about the fallout for business given deep economic ties between Asia’s top two economies.
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, though they could discuss other issues as well.
“The offer that I made that the United States would be willing to host a trilateral with both Japan and China if that would facilitate dialogue stands, and it is not only about one issue,” Clinton said on Tuesday during a visit to Malaysia.
However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu dismissed the proposal on Tuesday as “a U.S. idea,” adding that it was “totally 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).
Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated sharply in September after Japan detained a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japanese patrol ships near the chain of disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Critics in 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 slide in his support ratings to around 40 percent after just five months in office.
The rainy and windswept islands disputed by Moscow and Tokyo are known as the Southern Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. They stretch from northeast of Japan’s main northern island of Hokkaido to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.
Tokyo’s demands for the return of the territory have weighed on relations with Moscow ever since World War Two, preventing the signing of a peace treaty.
Japanese Economic Minister Banri Kaieda expressed concern that the Japan-Russia row could affect commercial relations, though economists expect no substantial impact.
“Japan and Russia have deep ties when it comes to energy and natural resources development,” Kaieda told reporters after a cabinet meeting. “I’m worried about the impact on economic relations from the Russian president’s visit to the Northern Territories.”
Japan’s trade flows with Russia are relatively small compared with those with China, now Japan’s biggest trade partner.
Japan’s exports to Russia in 2009 were equivalent to about 2 percent of its exports to China. Its imports from Russia accounted for 1.6 percent of Japan’s total imports.
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Ben Blanchard and Huang Yan in Beijing and Arshad Mohammed in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Michael Watson and Alex Richardson