Russia, Japan crisis talks end in failure

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The crisis talks between Russia and Japan over four Pacific islands ended in acrimonious failure Friday when Tokyo reaffirmed its claim on the chain and Moscow accused its neighbour of extreme behaviour.

The two-hour meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart Seiji Maehara was marked by an icy atmosphere and indications of an increasingly tense stalemate in the Kuril Islands dispute.

Japan slapped down a Russian proposal to form a joint commission to help resolve the crisis and the two diplomats notably failed to discuss a mooted visit to Moscow by Japanese Prime Minister Nato Kan.

"We could not bridge our differences," the Japanese foreign minister said flatly after talks that included a brief but unscheduled one-on-one meeting with Lavrov.

The difficult talks opened with the two delegations staring coldly at each other from opposite sides of a long table and Lavrov telling Maehara in a stern voice that he found Japan's recent actions unacceptable.

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

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

The meeting followed a tense week in which the Japanese prime minister called Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's November visit to the islands an "unforgivable outrage" and a bullet was mailed to Moscow's embassy in Tokyo.

Medvedev has responded by calling the Kurils an "inseparable" part of Russia and vowing to strengthen the archipelago's defences.

Friday's negotiations not only failed to make any headway but also suggested that the two sides were running out of ideas about how to overcome their dispute.

They ended with the two diplomats sitting side-by-side in a frosty joint press conference in which Maehara wore a stony expression and Lavrov read through a list of complaints against Japan.

"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 -- were 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.

Maehara had not been invited to see either 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.

Russia on Friday suggested forming a "historical commission" that could rule on which country ultimately owned the chain.

But Maehara quickly responded that he did not think that such a commission would be "very useful."

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.

But Maehara responded that Japan would only cooperate in such a venture if it did not "alter Japan's legal position" on the Kurils.

The Japanese foreign minister was also due to attend an economic roundtable and Japanese officials said in private that they considered the negotiation of trade and investment deals the ultimate purpose of Maehara's visit.

"I am promoting economic diplomacy," Maehara said after his talks with Lavrov.

© 2011 AFP

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