China’s Xi did not support Japan’s claim over Russian Southern Kurils

Chinese President Xi Jinping did not support Japan’s claim over the Russian Southern Kurils islands off Hokkaido in his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, according to a Chinese source familiar with the matter, Kyodo informs.

Xi told Putin at their meetings in Moscow that China “does not take either side” regarding the territorial row, in a shift to neutrality from China’s position indicated by then Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1964 to view the four disputed islands as ‘belonging to Japan’, the source said. In July 1964, Mao told a delegation of the Japan Socialist Party sent to China that he “believes the Russian-held islands should be returned to you.“

Since then the Chinese government had maintained this position, even though it did not publicly mention that stance in recent years, Kyodo notes.

Bilateral negotiations over the islands known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia have been suspended since Tokyo imposed punitive sanctions against Moscow following its special military operation in Ukraine.

The change in China’s position could make it more difficult to settle the decades-long dispute as Moscow is unlikely to concede on the issue now with backing from Beijing, observers say.

In the March 20-21 talks with Xi, Putin stressed the importance of promoting a ‘special duty-free zone’ set up on the islands and called for investment by Chinese companies, according to the source.