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International relations

Japan and Russia to iron out cooperation on disputed islands

Legal jurisdiction still a roadblock, as officials meet next week

A worker sorts pollock at a plant on Kunashiri, one of four islands called the Northern Territories by Japan and the Southern Kurils by Russia. The two countries are planning such joint economic activities as aquaculture in the disputed chain.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan and Russia will hold high-level talks next Wednesday on legal issues regarding proposed joint economic activities on a chain of disputed islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, and to pave the way for their leaders' next summit in mid-November.

Japanese Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Mori will meet with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov in Moscow to hash out details. They are expected to also discuss future visits to graves on the islands by Japanese ex-residents, as well as recent Russian military drills in the vicinity.

The Mori-Morgulov talks will be preceded by working-level meetings in both Tokyo and Moscow next Tuesday.

The two countries decided in September 2017 to pursue joint projects in the Russian-controlled islands in aquaculture, greenhouse farming, tourism, wind power and trash reduction. More specific possibilities include sea urchin farming, strawberry greenhouses and package tours.

But agreeing on a legal framework has been a challenge. Japan could be seen to be conceding ownership of the islands to Russia if it agrees to implement the projects under Russian law. The two sides seek a special arrangement that would not compromise either's territorial claims.

"We will create a special framework for every individual project instead of applying one across the board," a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said. Each project is expected to require a unique and detailed framework, such as on visas and customs procedures involved. Tokyo also wants to ensure that any facilities involved meet Japanese construction standards.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in May 2016 to pursue a "new approach" on the territorial dispute, hoping to build bilateral trust through projects on the islands and other economic cooperation. They are believed to have set at a summit this September a rough timeline for making the projects a reality.

Progress has only accelerated since, with Japan sending a public-private survey team to the islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri in the chain from Oct. 3 to Oct. 5. The team, the third of its kind, visited local seafood-processing facilities and hot springs, and met with the Russian side on wind power.

But uncertainties remain. On Oct. 18, Putin expressed a desire to sign a World War II peace treaty with Japan as a steppingstone to resolving the territorial dispute.

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