11/02/2010, 00.00
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Japan recalls its ambassador in Moscow after Medvedev visits Kuril Islands

Russia’s president visited the disputed islands on Sunday, provoking Tokyo’s irate response. Moscow insists the islands are Russian. Meanwhile, Sino-Japanese dispute over Senkaku Islands continues.

Tokyo (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Japan has recalled its ambassador in Moscow, “temporarily” Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara Maehara said today, to protest the visit yesterday by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Kunashiri Island (pictured), southern Kuril Islands, a small group of islands disputed by the two countries. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that the Russian president's visit was “very regrettable”. For Japan, the Kuril Islands remain Japanese territory.

The disputed islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are believed to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, plus gold and silver deposits. The islands are just ten kilometres from Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, but they are part of a chain that reaches up to the Russian mainland.

They have been under Soviet-Russian control since the end of the Second World War, but have suffered neglect since the fall of the Soviet Union. Consequently, the population has plummeted.

In 1956, the Soviet Union signed a declaration offering to give back the two smallest islands but talks never progressed. The dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing a peace treaty to end formal hostilities from the Second World War.

During his visit, Medvedev said that his government intends to improve the standard of living of the local population by building new housing and providing better services.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Tokyo's reaction to Medvedev's visit to the island "unacceptable”, insisting that President Medvedev visited Russian territory.

Still, “I think that bilateral talks will be held,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told a news conference. He was referring to a planned meeting between the leaders of Japan and Russia at an Asia-Pacific summit in mid-November.

For his part, Japanese Economic Minister Banri Kaieda was concerned that the Japan-Russia row could affect economic ties. “Japan and Russia have deep ties when it comes to energy and natural resources development,” he noted.  But for economists, no substantial economic impact should result because of the strength of those ties.

Trade between Russia and Japan is lower than that with China. In 2009, the mainland in fact became Japan’s top trading partner. Beijing and Tokyo have not however lowered their guard in the dispute over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea.

What is more, the “dispute between China and Japan over” the islands “is one between the two countries,” a spokesperson for  China’s Foreign Ministry said on its website is quoted as saying. Therefore, the issue does not involve other parties like the United States in spite of US-Japan defence agreements.

In China itself, media have kept the matter on the front burner. State-owned Global Times branded Japan's foreign minister Seiji Maehara an "extremist”, the “wrong guy to represent Japan in international relations”.  It went further, accusing him of scuttling a meeting between Chinese and Japanese leaders planned for last week in Hanoi during the ASEAN-Pacific summit.

On that occasion, the prime ministers of the two countries did meet however and agreed to speak at more length in the future and to “continue making efforts on promoting a strategic, mutually beneficial relationship”. This positive note came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced US concerns over the issue in a meeting with her Japanese counterpart.

Previously, Maehara had piqued Beijing's ire when he described as “hysterical” China’s reactions to the detention of the captain of a Chinese trawler caught on 7 September in the waters off the disputed islands. The Global Times called the statement “the most offensive by a Japanese government official in the past decade or two”.

For its part, Tokyo yesterday released a video showing that the Chinese trawler intentionally rammed Japanese vessels as evidence that it was not to blame for the incident.

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