Japan said yesterday it was recalling its ambassador to Moscow temporarily to hear explanations about a row over disputed islands that is snarling ties with Russia.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, struggling with a divided parliament and a fragile economy and now under fire for what critics call his mishandling of a similar row with China, got a fresh headache on Monday when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited one of four islands that both nations claim, reigniting a row with Japan, which demands their return.
However, leaders from Japan and Russia will likely hold talks at a summit of APEC on Nov. 13 and Nov. 14, Japan’s top government spokesman said, adding that Tokyo was considering what steps it might take after lodging a protest with the Russian envoy to Tokyo on Monday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday called the Japanese reaction “unacceptable,” but US State Department -spokesman P.J. Crowley weighed in on Japan’s side.
“We do back Japan regarding the Northern Territories, but this is why the United States for a number of years has encouraged Japan and Russia to negotiate an actual peace treaty regarding these and other issues,” Crowley said.
The dispute between Tokyo and Moscow concerns four islands off northern Japan that were occupied by troops of the former Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
Tokyo’s demands for the return of the islands, which stretch from northeast of Japan’s main northern island of Hokkaido to Russia’s -Kamchatka Peninsula, have weighed on relations with Moscow ever since, preventing the signing of a peace treaty.
Japanese Economic Minister Banri Kaieda expressed worries that the Japan-Russia row could affect economic ties, but economists saw no substantial economic impact.
“Japan and Russia have deep ties when it comes to energy and natural resources development,” Kaieda told reporters after a Cabinet meeting. “I’m worried about the impact on economic relations from the Russian president’s visit to the Northern Territories.”
Japan’s trade flows with Russia are relatively small compared with those with China, which became Japan’s biggest trade partner last year.
Japan’s exports to Russia last year were equivalent to about 2 percent of its exports to China. Its imports from Russia accounted for 1.6 percent of Japan’s total imports.
“Japan imports liquefied gas, but that can be imported from elsewhere, as can oil. This is not an EU-Russia situation so the impact is very limited,” said Martin Schulz, a senior economist at Fujitsu Research Institute.
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