Japan Steps Up Russia Sanctions, Protests Island Visit

Japan announced new sanctions on Russia, and lodged a protest after a senior official visited an island claimed by both nations, adding to tensions that have delayed a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Tokyo.

Japan will ban the issuance of securities in Japan by certain Russian banks, and tighten restrictions on defense exports to Russia over the infiltration of troops into eastern Ukraine, the government said yesterday. Separately, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the visit to the island by Sergei Ivanov, head of the Russian presidential administration, was “extremely regrettable.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to maintain personal ties with Putin while remaining in step with the Group of Seven nations on sanctions. Abe has vowed to resolve a territorial dispute that dates back to 1945, as well as broadening Japan’s sources of gas imports amid an energy shortage after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“In imposing sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, Prime Minister Abe continues to walk a fine line between coordination with his G7 counterparts and maintaining relations with Russia,” said Tina Burrett, assistant professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. Similar visits to disputed islands by Russian officials have failed to derail the good relations between Abe and Putin, she said.

Ivanov is the most senior Russian official to visit the area since Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2012.

Too Busy

Russia told Japan that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s schedule is too packed for a meeting with his Japanese counterpart during the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, the Mainichi newspaper reported today, citing unidentified people.

“We want to continue to develop relations with Russia in a way that benefits Japan’s national interests,” Suga said. He added that nothing had been decided on a visit to Japan by Putin -- a trip that had been penciled in for this autumn.

Russia’s foreign ministry expressed its disappointment in the move in an online statement yesterday. This latest “unfriendly step” shows “Japan’s inability to form foreign policy independently,” it said.

Japan is prepared to cancel or ease the sanctions if Russia makes a clear effort to seek a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Ukraine, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said today in a statement on the ministry’s website.

China’s Position

The ban on security issuance applies to Russian financial institutions including OAO Sberbank, VTB Group, OAO Gazprombank, Vnesheconombank and Russian Agricultural Bank.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said China will never support nor participate in sanctions against Russia, no matter how much pressure China faces, Voice of Russia reports, citing Russian Federation Council Chairman Valentina Matviyenko, who made comments to reporters after meeting Xi Sept. 23.

Putin and Abe agreed in a phone call on Sept. 21 to use international events such as November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing to continue dialog. The two countries are to hold joint maritime rescue drills this month, the Nikkei newspaper reported.

New Airport

The island, called Iturup in Russian and Etorofu in Japanese, is one of four near Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido at the center of a disagreement with Russia since the Soviet Union took them over at the end of World War II, expelling thousands of Japanese people.

Russia opened a new airport on the island visited by Ivanov on Sept. 22, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.

Ivanov’s visit to the island comes six weeks after Russia held military exercises in the Kuril islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan. The drills were “absolutely unacceptable,” Japan’s foreign ministry said at the time.

Abe had been working to resolve the territorial differences and expand the supply of Russian energy to Japan, with the country struggling to meet its energy needs following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. He is the first Japanese leader in a decade to make an official visit to Russia, and has met Putin five times, including a trip to the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony that was shunned by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Differences over the islands proved the stumbling block to Japan and the Soviet Union signing a permanent peace treaty after negotiations in 1956. At the time, the two sides signed a joint declaration reestablishing diplomatic relations and agreed to continue talks on the islands.

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