Southern Kuriles/Northern Territories – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited an island claimed by Moscow and Tokyo on Monday, sparking a diplomatic row with Japan as it struggles to mend ties with rising rival China.
Medvedev's visit to the island, one of four known as the Southern Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, was likely to snarl ties with Japan ahead of an Asia-Pacific leaders summit that Japan will host in mid-November.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan quickly expressed regret over the visit -- the first by a Russian leader.
"Japan's stance is that those four northern islands are part of our country's territory, so the president's visit is very regrettable," Kan told a parliamentary panel.
Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said any such visit would "hurt the feelings of the Japanese people." Maehara said last month a visit by Medvedev would severely harm relations.
For a map of the islands: link.reuters.com/tej23q
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku, the cabinet's No.2., told a news conference that Japan would monitor Russia's comments and actions for the time being, but Jiji news agency said that Japan had protested to Russia's envoy over the visit.
Kan, whose support ratings have sunk to around 40 percent after five months in office, has already seen ties with China sour after Japan in September detained a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japanese patrol ships near disputed isles in the East China Sea.
Hopes that relations between Asia's two biggest economies were on the mend were dashed on the weekend, when China abruptly canceled a planned meeting between Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Hanoi.
The dispute with Beijing has raised concerns about fallout for business. China became Japan's biggest trade partner last year, replacing the United States.
BAD NEWS FOR JAPAN PM
Trade flows with Russia are tiny by comparison.
Japan's exports to Russia totaled 306.5 billion yen ($3.8 billion) in 2009, about 2 percent of its exports to China and its imports from Russia came to 825.5 billion yen in 2009, accounting for 1.6 percent of Japan's total imports.
But the latest diplomatic fuss is bad news for Kan, who took over as Japan's fifth premier in three years in June and then led his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to an upper house election defeat the next month. The party swept to power for the first time last year pledging to change how the country is governed.
Ties between the DPJ-led government and Japan's close ally the United States were also frayed by a row over a U.S. airbase on southern Okinawa island, although concerns about China have helped relations with Washington improve recently.
"The Japanese government strained its ties with the United States over Futenma, then it mishandled the Senkaku issue with China. If it were unable to take appropriate steps over this issue with Russia, the Kan government and the overall Democratic Party rule would suffer an extremely heavy blow," said Shigeki Hakamada, professor at Aoyama Gakuin University
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied on Saturday that Medvedev's trip to the disputed isle, which comes ahead of a November 13-14 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders summit, was politically charged.
"The territory of the Russian Federation is the territory of the Russian Federation," Lavrov said.
Analysts, though, said the visit appeared intended to bolster Medvedev's image at home.
"He is seen by some as a young, soft liberal who is trying to improve ties with the United States, Europe and Japan," Hakamada said. "With the presidential election scheduled for 2012, he needs to create an image of him as strong president."
The Soviet Union occupied the four disputed islands at the end of World War Two and the territorial row has weighed on relations between Tokyo and Moscow since, preventing the signing of a formal peace treaty.
The island chain stretches northeast from Japan's main northern island of Hokkaido to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. Kunashir lies about 10 miles from Hokkaido.
Most people in the islands depend on fishing for their livelihood and Japan, a major fish consumer, would gain rich fishing grounds if the islands were returned. The islands are also close to oil and gas production regions of Russia.
Politicians in both countries have used tough talk on the dispute to bolster their credential as patriots. But there have been no signs of a potential breakthrough for years.