While most of international political attention was riveted on the U.S.-China summit in Washington, another important meeting being held half a world away ended with a major breakthrough. Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto vowed finally to bring about a World War II peace treaty between the two countries by the year 2000. The strategic interests of both, and of the region, will be served if this can be achieved.
For more than 50 years, Russia and Japan have contested sovereignty over four small islands off Japan's northern coast. In the war's final days Soviet troops seized the islands, known as the southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. Japan has long given top priority to ending the dispute. Time and again efforts to resolve it have failed.
But in July, Hashimoto became the first Japanese leader to drop the policy of placing the islands issue before other steps toward normalization of relations. He said the two neighbors should mend ties on the basis of "mutual benefit, mutual trust and long-term vision."
Toward that end Yeltsin and Hashimoto held the first postwar Japanese-Russian summit to take place in Russia, in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk. They agreed on the year 2000 target date for a peace treaty but left unclear how the two nations will compromise on the islands issue. Russia originally relinquished all claims to the islands in 1875. At the end of World War II, Moscow took back four of the islands and in 1956 agreed to return two of the four to Japan. But that promise has yet to be fulfilled.
To further improve relations, the two leaders agreed to increase cooperation on a wide range of trade, energy, transportation and military issues, including exchanges of visits by military chiefs of staff. Japan can be helpful in the development of post-Soviet Russia, while Russia can be a major supplier of energy and resources to Tokyo.
The two nations have taken the first step toward a long- overdue rapprochement. Five years ago, when Yeltsin was preparing to visit Tokyo, he said he had 14 different ideas for settling the islands dispute. He had to cancel that visit, but now he has the opportunity to present those ideas in the large context of negotiating a too-long-delayed peace accord between Russia and Japan.