Tokyo: Japan's foreign minister said on Thursday that Russia has no legal right to occupy several disputed islands that have kept the two countries at odds for decades, despite Moscow's increasingly assertive stance.
Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said Japan stands by its claim to the islands in the southern Kuril chain that were occupied in the closing days of World War II by the Soviet Army. The dispute has kept the two nations from signing a peace treaty to formally end their World War II hostilities.
"Whether Russia sends its leaders there or boosts its defences, it still has no claim under international law to occupy the islands," he said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev travelled to the island's last year — becoming the first Russian or Soviet leader ever to do so. He has stressed that he sees the islands as Russian territory.
Medvedev announced on Wednesday that Russia will send more weapons to its islands in north Pacific. He said his country must strengthen its presence there and that the new weapons will protect the islands as an "inalienable part of Russia”.
The Russian state news agency ITAR-Tass cited a Defence Ministry source as saying that some of the four Mistral assault ships that Russia has contracted to buy from France would be deployed in the Pacific Fleet, in part to defend the southern Kurils.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano responded on Thursday by saying that Japan is closely watching Russian military activity in the region.
Japan has strongly protested Medvedev's trip and other visits by top politicians to the islands. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan recently called Medvedev's visit "an outrage”.
Maehara, who on Thursday called the territory an integral part of Japan, was expected to express similar concern during a visit to Moscow that was to begin later Thursday and focus on economic development and the deepening territorial dispute.
Japan has said that the door to economic cooperation is not completely closed, but progress must also be made on the island dispute.
"There is room for expanding our cooperation in such fields as economy and energy," said Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for the Prime Minister. "In order to expand such cooperation, it is essential from our viewpoint that we will overcome the territorial issues."
First Published: Thursday, February 10, 2011, 13:14