Japan Protests Medvedev's Trip to Island at Center of Territorial Dispute

Japan protested Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to a disputed island chain, at a time when the Japanese government is locked in a row with China over a separate territorial claim.

Medvedev today visited Kunashir, one of four islands called the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. During a three-hour trip, the first by a Russian leader to the islands, he toured a geothermal power plant and a newly built kindergarten. The island is known as Kunashiri in Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan today in parliament called Medvedev’s trip “very regrettable.” Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara summoned Russian Ambassador Mikhail Bely to object, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The visit “is incompatible with our basic stance and hurts the feelings of the Japanese people,” Maehara said during a 20- minute meeting with the Russian envoy, according to the statement. Bely said Medvedev’s trip, which came as he returned from a regional summit in Hanoi, was a domestic matter, and that a worsening of Japan-Russian ties would benefit neither country.

The trip, a deliberate “provocation” toward Japan, aims to bolster Russia’s prestige at a time when Russian leaders are taking a more accommodating stance toward the U.S. and Europe, said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

‘Improper and Unacceptable’

It could also help reinforce Medvedev’s personal stature as he seeks to keep himself in the running for the 2012 elections, which many expect will return Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the presidency, Lipman said. Putin, who stepped aside in 2008 to avoid violating a constitutional ban on three consecutive terms, remains the main power in Russia, according to Lipman.

The Soviet Union seized the islands six miles (10 kilometers) from Japan’s Hokkaido Island at the end of World War II, and the dispute over their sovereignty has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a formal peace treaty.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku on Sept. 29 called on Medvedev not to visit the islands, a request Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said was “improper and unacceptable.”

Medvedev, whose trip came two weeks before he visits Japan to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, said the Russian government would invest more money in the islands.

“We want people to stay here,” he said in comments reported by state broadcaster Rossiya 24. “It’s important that there should be development. We’ll definitely put money here.”

Some 10,000 people live on the disputed islands, about 7,000 of them on Kunashir. The chain also includes the Habomai islet group, Shikotan and Iturup, known in Japan as Etorofu.

China Dispute

The Russo-Japanese controversy came as Japan is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China. Tensions between Asia’s two biggest economies heightened after a Chinese fishing trawler in September collided with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refused to have an official meeting with Kan at the Hanoi summit over the weekend, though the two met informally for about 10 minutes. Japan’s claims on the uninhabited islands, violated “China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue said Oct. 29, according to Xinhua News Agency.

A group of about 30 Japanese lawmakers watched a Coast Guard video of the collision today for the first time. Kan’s administration has resisted calls to release the video.

Yasuhisa Shiozaki, a senior member of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party who watched the video, said in a statement that the government “must make it public.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Anna Shiryaevskaya in Kunashiri at ashiryaevska@bloomberg.net; To contact the reporter on this story: Takashi Hirokawa in Tokyo at thirokawa@bloomberg.net

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