Russia, Japan fail to quell islands row

11th February 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia and Japan on Friday failed to calm a flaring territorial dispute in a bruising meeting of their top diplomats, with Moscow bluntly accusing Tokyo of unacceptable behaviour in the standoff.

The talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart Seiji Maehara were marked by an icy atmosphere and indications of an increasingly tense stalemate over the Pacific Kuril islands dispute.

"To be honest, I expected to receive you in Moscow against a better backdrop," a stern-looking Lavrov said as he opened the talks in Moscow.

"Your visit comes against the background of a series of completely unacceptable actions," he added.

In the last days, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan had called President Dmitry Medvedev's unprecedented visit to the Kuril islands in November an "unforgivable outrage" while a rifle bullet was mailed to the Russian embassy in Japan.

The two men later sat side-by-side in a frosty joint press conference, with Maehara stock-still as Lavrov repeated his anger over Japan's actions and warned that talks were not possible if Tokyo took a radical position.

"When radical positions are adopted in Japan..., and this happens sometimes, and they are shared by the leaders of the country, then of course any kind of dialogue has no chance," Lavrov said.

Maehara responded that the islands -- known in Japan as the Northern Territories -- are his country's historic territory.

"The Northern Territories are age-old Japanese territory," he said. "This can be said from the point of view of history, and from the point of view taken on the international level," he said.

Indicating no progress had been made to quell the flaring tensions, he added: "Our positions are still parallel."

Amid a spiralling row, Medvedev this week ordered the deployment of extra weaponry on the disputed islands and declared them to be an "inseparable" part of Russia.

Russian media said that unusually for a visit by a top diplomat from a major industrialised power, Maehara was not going to be granted a meeting with Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The decades-long impasse has prevented the signature of a formal peace treaty and kept Japanese investments to a minimum in Russia's under-developed Far East.

"The Japanese side is focusing in these talks on economic cooperation," a source in the Japanese delegation told AFP, warning it would be unlikely the two sides would agree a date for Kan to visit Russia.

Medvedev relaunched the Kurils debate in November by paying an unprecedented visit to a region that has no major industry besides fishing.

Yet it has emerged as a central part of Medvedev's effort to exert a strong image on the eve of elections in 2012 and his trip has been followed by a series of similar visits by senior regional and economic officials.

The two sides had used previous meetings to gloss over the dispute and focus on more immediate trade relations in the Pacific region.

Japan is interested in securing new natural gas supplies and playing a broader role in energy projects on Russia's Sakhalin Island.

Medvedev for his part has proposed making the Kurils into a free trade zone that attracts Japanese investments on favorable terms.

The dispute surrounds the southernmost four islands -- known in Russian as Iturup, Shikotan, Habomai and Kunashir -- which are still claimed by Tokyo and collectively known in Japan as the Northern Territories.

Japan does not contest Russia's sovereignty over the northernmost islands but has repeatedly demanded the return of the other four. Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov last week angered Japan by visiting Iturup and Kunashir.

© 2011 AFP

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