Japan recalls ambassador in Russia over island dispute

Medvedev's trip to disputed territory elicited angry protests; Japan says its ambassador to Moscow is returning to discuss the issue.

Medvedev visits one of the Russian-held islands claimed by J (photo credit: Associated Press)
Medvedev visits one of the Russian-held islands claimed by J
(photo credit: Associated Press)
TOKYO — Japan temporarily called its ambassador back from Russia on Tuesday but left the door open for a possible summit despite growing anger in Tokyo over President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to a disputed island off Japan's northern coast.
Medvedev's trip to the island on Monday — the first by a Russian leader — elicited angry protests from Tokyo and came as Japan is embroiled in another heated territorial dispute with China over islands in the south.
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Tokyo on Tuesday said it was temporarily bringing its ambassador to Moscow back to Japan to discuss the issue. It did not say how long he would remain.
Still, Japan's top government spokesman told reporters Prime Minister Naoto Kan intended to go ahead with arrangements for a meeting with Medvedev on the sidelines of a regional summit in Japan on Nov. 13-14.
"We are trying to decide what is the most effective course of action," chief Cabinet spokesman Yoshito Sengoku said Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said the move to bring back the ambassador was not intended to be antagonistic. He added that Japan's overall policy to strengthen economic ties with Russia has not changed, though he stressed that Medvedev's visit was highly regrettable.
"In the long term, we want to make progress in our relations," Maehara said. "But we must make our position clear."
The dispute over the Russian-held islands has been a major sticking point behind the failure of the two countries to conclude a peace treaty formally ending their hostilities in World War II.
The disputed islands — known in Japan as the Northern Territories and in Russia as the southern Kurils — have rich fishing waters and are thought to have promising offshore oil and natural gas reserves, plus gold and silver deposits.
But the islands — which were occupied by Soviet troops in the waning days of World War II — have suffered neglect and the population has plummeted since the fall of the Soviet Union.
During his visit, Medvedev vowed to build infrastructure on the islands and raise their standard of living to one commensurate with the rest of Russia.
Medvedev, in announcing his plan to visit the area in September, described the islands as "a very important region in our country."
That position has angered Japan's government, which claims Soviet troops took control of the islands illegally and has consistently called for their return as a condition for fully improved ties.
On Monday, Japan summoned Russian Ambassador Mikhail Bely for about 20 minutes to lodge a formal protest. Maehara said Japan "has no choice but to take appropriate action in response to President Medvedev's visit."
Bely responded that it was a domestic issue.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Tokyo's reaction to Medvedev's visit "unacceptable" and said he would call in Japan's ambassador to protest.
"This is our land, and the Russian president was visiting Russian land, Russian territories, a Russian region. We said so to our Japanese partners," Lavrov told a news conference.
Medvedev's visit came amid a high-level dispute between Japan and China over another set of islands in the East China Sea.
Japan's coast guard detained the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with two Japanese patrol vessels near the islands on Sept. 7, sparking the diplomatic spat and setting off protests across China even after the captain was released.
That dispute and other tensions are believed to have been behind Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's decision to cancel a full meeting with Kan at a recent East Asia Summit in Hanoi. Instead, the two met informally for about 10 minutes.