A VAGUE outcome to last week's Japan-Soviet summit has let both
sides off the hook of making promises neither can yet fulfill.
President Mikhail Gorbachev ended his four-day visit to Japan by
endorsing only obliquely a 1956 Soviet pledge conceding territory to
Japan. Prime Minister Toshiski Kaifu, meanwhile, offered only an
ambiguous "balanced expansion" of assistance for the Soviet economy.
Giving away Soviet soil at this time would have hurt Mr.
Gorbachev's ability to rein in breakaway Soviet republics or his
precarious stand with domestic hard-liners, his aides say. Japan is
seeking a return of four northern islands occupied by the Soviet
Army just after World War II.
Japan's leaders, in turn, avoided pledging the large-scale
economic aid that they link to a return of the islands. Such
Japanese largess would have put it out of sync with Washington,
which is trying to restrain aid to Moscow until market reforms are
in place. Also, with the chance of another crackdown in the Soviet
Union, Japan was wary of appearing to embrace the Soviet economy.
Rather, with a "breakthrough" seen as unlikely before the summit
on both the questions of territory and aid, the two sides instead
noted that this first-ever visit to Japan by a Soviet leader
achieved its primary goal of lessening historic animosity and
promising more high-level talks.
"The fact that Gorbachev came to Japan at all and acknowledged
the island issue are the most important points," said a leading
politician, Kiichi Miyazawa. Before this, Moscow refused to talk
about the dispute.
Still, the ambiguous wording in the summit's joint statement
concerning the islands - hammered out over nine hours of sometimes
sharp dialogue between Gorbachev and Mr. Kaifu - could cause future
rankling between Moscow and Tokyo. The statements refer only to
"positive elements" made in a 1956 joint declaration that set
postwar relations between the two nations. To Japan, the key aspect
of the declaration (which Moscow abandoned in 1960 when Japan signed
a security treaty with the United States) was a Soviet promise to
return two of the four islands after a peace treaty was signed.
Just after signing the summit's joint statement, Gorbachev tried
to play down Japanese rumors that he had fully endorsed the 1956
"We accepted those parts in the joint declaration that have
produced results from a viewpoint of international law," he said.
"But we did not revive what has not come into existence or what has
lost a chance."
During his April 16-19 visit, Gorbachev referred to the
Stalin-era taking of the islands as a mistake "by people of
different generations who did not see things the way we do," but
that past decisions "should not be hastily corrected. …