TOKYO: More than financial typhoons are rattling the Pacific. Emerging changes in the region’s balance-of-power may be of equal long term importance as today’s stock market tumult. Summit talks between Russia’s president and Japan’s prime minister in early November, for example, produced far richer outcomes than anyone expected. During long sauna discussions, Boris Yeltsin and Ryutaro Hashimoto agreed to conclude a peace treaty between Russia and Japan by the year 2000, something that has vexed both countries since WWII’s end.
What is Moscow’s hidden agenda? Russia now wants to join the Asian power game by improving it’s ties with Tokyo. But this can not happen unless the issue of four islands, the Kuriles, taken by Stalin in the waning days of WWII is settled.
Easier said than done. In 1956, without closing the issue, the two countries agreed to end their state of war. Nikita Khrushchev, indeed, promised to return two of the four islands if and when a peace treaty was signed. As America and Japan strengthened their alliance after 1960, peace talks withered.
Even after communism’s collapse the dispute lingered. In 1991, as the Cold War wound down, President Gorbachev conceded that there was a territorial problem between the two countries and hinted at a willingness to resolve the matter. By 1993, however, President Yeltsin was talking tougher: "Let this be settled in the next century, by future generations," he argued in a speech before Oryol University students.