VLADIVOSTOK - When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan sat down last Thursday with President Geun-hye Park at the finals of women's figure skating in Sochi, Russia, the physical and emotional distance between the two leaders seemed an illustration of the freeze in relations between the two countries. Mr. Abe and President Park sat apart, acknowledging each other's presence only once at the start of the evening. Japan First Lady Akie Abe, a fan of Korean culture and a speaker of the Korean language, sat in between the two leaders, eagerly and energetically chatting with the South Korean leader in a manner that made the frostiness between President Park and Prime Minister Abe all the more glaring.
The lack of interaction between President Park and Mr. Abe last week made yesterday's announcement of a broad-based, multilateral agreement on East Asian territorial issues all the more unexpected. Foreign ministers of Japan, South Korea, Russia and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meeting in this frigid Pacific port, held a news conference outlining an intricate plan for countries in the region to settle longstanding territorial disputes in a wave of mutual recognitions of each other’s territorial claims.
"President Park and Mr. Abe put on an incredible show on Thursday night, better perhaps than the two young ladies," quipped one of President Park's advisers, who asked to remain anonymous. "The two governments had already cut the deal on Dokdo recognition, ending the feud. The two leaders showed no warmth at all toward each in order to keep the whole deal under wraps."
Though the details are not fully hammered out regarding Japanese rights on the northernmost of the two islands the Russians call the Southern Kuriles and the Japanese call their Northern Territories, the basic outlines of yesterday's agreements are:
- Russia will return to Japan of the islands of Shikotan and Habomai, seized by Soviet forces in 1945. Russia will gain sovereignty over the two remaining islands currently under dispute, with former Japanese residents of the islands and their descendants winning special extraterritorial rights of residency and self-rule on the islands.
- Japan and Russia will sign a peace treaty, officially ending World War II.
- Japan will recognize of South Korean sovereignty over islets known as Dokdo, which the Japanese call Takeshima. In return, the South Korea government promises to suspend all official efforts to change the name of the sea in which Dokdo is located from "Sea of Japan" to "East Sea."
- Russia, South Korea and the United States will recognize Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which China and the government of Taiwan both claim.
The responses of the Chinese government to the declaration on the Senkakus, which Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands, have been confusion, disbelief and anger. Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, China's senior representative at the Vladivostok talks after the departure of Foreign Minister Wang Yi two days ago, had no prepared statement, leaving the conference hall in a rush with reporters trailing in his wake. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, in a hastily arranged news conference in Beijing, declared, "Japan does not have sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands and no agreement among outsider nations can change this reality. The perfidy of today's illegitimate acts will reverberate through history but will never break China's bond to its sovereign territories."
"China overplayed its hand and absented itself from efforts to find a solution," explained a senior U.S. official, speaking on background. "The declaration of the East China Sea air defense zone in November got everyone's attention, making it clear that just leaving sovereignty issues in limbo was just going to continue to generate threats to everyone's security. Once the ball started rolling on the need for mutual recognitions and mutual sacrifices, the negotiations gained unstoppable momentum, bringing us to the agreement we have today."
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