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For Russia and Japan, an Old Agenda of Unfinished Business

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG - On the face of it, nothing much has come of President Vladimir Putin's visit to Japan for talks with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. The two sides remain deadlocked on the future of the four Kuril islands occupied by the Soviet Union in 1945. A peace treaty is no nearer, even though in 1997 President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto set a 2000 deadline for agreement.

However, after a century of more or less open hostility, perceptions of mutual interests are changing. Enmity derives from the fact both countries were once expansionist powers. Russia, which had reached the Pacific as well as Central Asia and had ambitions in Manchuria, was met by a modernizing Japan building its own empire and which delivered a rude shock to Russia in the 1904-1905 war. After Japan's 1945 defeat, the Cold war entrenched distrust and racial antagonisms.

But now? Russia and Japan are both on the defensive. An impoverished Russia is trying to hold itself together and prevent the erosion of its national interests. A wealthy Japan worries about maintaining what it has in a future when China will be more powerful and U.S. protection less assured. Both have an interest in ensuring that an eventually reunited Korea does not become a Chinese satellite.

For now, Japan and Russia have sharply differing views on proposed U.S. missile defense. But if, as seems possible, technology does not upset the U.S.-Russian strategic balance, the Russians may see that any theater missile defense system which maintains the status quo in Northeast Asia - including Taiwan - is in its interest.

The two have a mutual interest also in developing Sakhalin and Russian Far East gas and other resources. Moscow needs to reverse the region's economic decline if it is to hold it in the long run as the Russian population there declines and Chinese move in. The Japanese need to reduce their dependence on energy from the Middle East and other distant sources, and in the process provide a counterweight to Chinese commercial expansion in the Russian Far East.

Russians and Japanese may in future need each other just as the British once needed Japan to prevent any power other than America from achieving dominance in the region. The Russians are at least paying Japan more attention, and backing its bid for a Security Council seat.

The relationship will change only slowly, because of the historical baggage. The time when a Russian president is strong enough at home to do a deal with Japan over the islands still seems far away. Japan remains locked in refusal to accept that it should suffer any territorial loss from the war.

Germany accepted the loss of vast tracts of territory in the east and the ethnic cleansing of once predominantly German-speaking areas. But Japan remains unwilling to accept the loss of two thinly populated and strategically unimportant islands.

Back in 1956, the Soviets undertook to return two islands in return for a peace treaty, a commitment that Mr. Putin has now reaffirmed. Japan wants sovereignty over all four islands, although it would allow Russian administration for the time being. And Japan will not accept a peace treaty that does not also deal with the islands.

Japanese intransigence may be a by-product of U.S. protection, which has relieved it from having to make hard choices. There is also the moral superiority gained by victory in the Cold War. But the current standoff is damaging to both Japan and Russia.

It is not helped by Russia's internal problems. Japanese businessmen are cautious, having had some bad experiences in Russia. They are particularly reluctant to invest heavily in resource projects with long lead times when ownership issues are murky and provincial authorities corrupt and unreliable. Mr. Putin needs to put his house in order if the economic relationship is to blossom.

Yet make no mistake. On the surface the Putin visit was a nonevent, but deep down the waters of the Northwest Pacific are on the move.