Kurils trip hits diplomatic, not economic, links: analysts
President Dmitry Medvedev's symbolic visit on Monday to the disputed Kuril Islands, claimed by Japan, escalates diplomatic tensions but is unlikely to affect economic links with Japan, analysts said.
The Kuril Islands, which lie north of Japan's Hokkaido island, have been controlled by Moscow since they were seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II, but Tokyo claims the southernmost four as Japanese territory.
Since 1945, no Russian leader had visited the islands. Medvedev initially announced his intention in September, when he was prevented by bad weather. He also called the Kurils a "very important region of our country."
Despite a speedy response from Japan that a visit would "severely hurt ties," he landed on one of the disputed four, Kunashir, on Monday for a brief visit lasting less than four hours, meeting residents and visiting local enterprises.
"By going (to Kunashir), Medvedev showed that he is a strong leader and that Russia is not a country whose leader can take advice from abroad where to go and where not to go," analyst Valery Kistanov told AFP.
"If Japan had reacted calmly to Medvedev's wish to visit the Kurils, it would not have led to tensions in relations," said Kistanov, the head of the Centre for Japanese Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"Action led to reaction," said Kistanov, adding that if Medvedev had decided against the trip, it would have led to "loss of face" in Russia.
Medvedev is due to visit Yokohama, Japan, for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on November 12 and meet Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was elected in June.
Kan has already reiterated the "position that the four disputed islands belong to Japanese territory" and called Medvedev's visit there "very regrettable".
"Now tensions have definitely escalated," Kistanov said, adding that they could either be dissipated by a face-to-face meeting between the countries' leaders at the APEC summit, or escalate further if Japan refuses a meeting.
Russian and Japanese officials have repeatedly expressed frustration that the dispute has prevented relations reaching their full potential but summit meetings over the last years have failed to make any progress in the dispute.
The Kurils issue is an "eternal irritant" to Japan, said Leonid Slutsky, deputy head of the Russian parliament's committee on international affairs.
"Clearly, reaching a common denominator on this issue from the point of view of Tokyo can only be done by giving the Kuril islands back to Japan, but that is absolutely impossible because they are an integral part of Russian territory," he told the Interfax news agency.
"The president, without agreeing it with any state, can visit any corner of his country from Kaliningrad in the west to the Kurils and Chukotka in the east."
Despite Japan's stern rhetoric, Russia does not have very much at stake in terms of bilateral trade or investment from Japan, both of which remain very small, analysts said, however.
"Russia has become more important to Japan than Japan to Russia," said Ronald Nash, an analyst with Renaissance Capital investment group. "Russia is the main supplier of natural resources in Asia," he said.
"There is a lot of competition in Asia for natural resources, so to that extent the importance of the relationship for Japan is probably greater than the relationship for Russia."
"Japan has very few economic levers with Russia," said Kistanov. "They need our energy resources, they will not stop importing them."
While Russia is developing ties with Japan, its chief objective on the Asian market is China, where it plans to strengthen its presence hugely, Nash said.
"Japan is one of the two major drivers for economic growth in Asia. Of course it is important for Russia to keep good ties with Japan, but is it as important as with China? No," he said.
© 2010 AFP