Tokyo recalls ambassador over Russia island row

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Japan said Tuesday it will recall its ambassador to Moscow, heightening a long-standing row with Russia over four remote Pacific islands following a visit there by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said he wanted information from the ambassador following Medvedev's visit to one of the Kuril Islands on Monday, which Tokyo condemned as "very regrettable".

"I decided to recall ambassador to Russia (Masaharu) Kono temporarily," Maehara told reporters.

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.

The feud is another headache for Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose government has been embroiled in Japan's worst diplomatic spat for years with China, over disputed islets in the East China Sea.

Medvedev infuriated Japan on Monday with the first ever trip by a Russian leader to one of the four islands at the heart of the dispute that has prevented the signing of a post-war peace treaty between the two nations.

Japan summoned Russia's ambassador to Tokyo after Medvedev flew in to the island of Kunashir, known as Kunashiri in Japan for a brief four-hour trip, where he inspected several sites and chatted with local residents.

However, Tokyo said earlier that Kan was still likely to meet Medvedev when he visits Japan for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit on November 13-14.

"I believe the bilateral meeting will be held," chief government spokesman Yoshito Sengoku said

Kan's centre-left government came under fire at home over its handling of Medvedev's visit and the long-running dispute.

"The Russian side took advantage of the confusion of Japanese diplomacy under the DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) government and made a preventive move against Japan's demand for the return of the four islands," the mass circulation Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial.

The business daily Nikkei echoed the sentiment.

"It's undeniable that Russia exploited a lack of philosophy in Japanese diplomacy as the Japanese government gave a shameless performance over the collision incident with a Chinese fishing boat."

The bitter feud with Beijing stems from the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain whose vessel collided with Japanese patrol boats in waters near a disputed island chain in the East China Sea in September.

The fallout from that dispute has seen Kan's approval ratings plummet, with the public feeling that Tokyo capitulated to Chinese demands after prosecutors released the boat captain.

On Tuesday Beijing said that China and Japan alone should resolve their dispute over contested islands in the East China Sea, rejecting a US offer for three-way talks to address the simmering row.

Analysts said Medvedev's visit was a clear signal to Tokyo that Moscow is not willing to give up the islands, which sit on deposits of gold and silver and have abundant marine life.

"Russia is testing the Kan administration's capability to handle security issues," said Hiroshi Kimura, professor of Russian politics at Takushoku University.

"Medvedev's visit is a message that Russia may not return all the four islands, the hardest stance ever taken by a leader of Russia or former Soviet Union," he said.

Akihiro Iwashita, professor of Russian diplomacy at Hokkaido University, said Japan will face a difficult diplomatic choice in the APEC summit.

"If Japan does nothing to counter the Russian action, it will send the message to the world that Japan can't do anything on this kind of issue," he said.

Kan's centre-left DPJ has also come under fire for what pundits call poor handling of a spat with the United States over an unpopular air base earlier this year.

Kan's predecessor Yukio Hatoyama was forced to resign in June for his crippling indecision in a row over the base on Okinawa island, offending both local residents and Washington.

© 2010 AFP

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