THE cold war may be over in Europe, but the chill is still on in relations between Japan and the Soviet Union. Senior Foreign Ministry officials of both countries held a lengthy meeting here last week as part of ongoing negotiations to improve bilateral relations. But no progress was made as they remained locked in a tough dispute over the so-called ``Northern Territories'' that Japan claims the Soviet Union seized at the end of the World War II.
``We could not narrow the difference between each other's position,'' says Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Rogachev at a press conference after the Dec. 18 meeting.
The negotiation stalled on the issue of four islands - Shikotan, Iturup Ostrov, Kunashir, and Habomai-shoto - that were surrendered to the Soviet Union under the Yalta agreement. Japan insists that the isles off the northeast tip of Hokkaido be returned and has refused substantial expansion of economic ties with Moscow.
During the six-and-a-half-hour meeting, the Soviet side spent four-and-a-half hours explaining its perspective on the legitimacy of the Soviet claim to the Kuril Islands from an international legal, historical, and geographical point of view. It also proposed an exchange of draft peace treaties that include the territorial issue. The Japanese agreed to give a detailed answer at the next meeting, which will come before Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's scheduled visit to Japan next March.
At the moment, the Japanese see the Soviet proposal as a diplomatic strategy - an attempt to support the Soviet claim to the islands, rather than to work toward reconciliation of the issue. According to Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe, ``They are trying to prompt the procedure in the direction they want to achieve.''
Last November hopes were raised that Moscow might make concessions on the territorial issue. Soviet Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev led a delegation to Japan to set conditions for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's planned 1991 visit. He said at the time that there would be ``a third way'' to solve the problem. But there was no indication that a new proposal has been made.
Mr. Yakovlev's trip was the highest-level Soviet visit ever to Japan, giving both nations the sense that bilateral relations were headed in a positive direction. A series of official talks have been held between Tokyo and Moscow over the past year. But, according to Mr. Rogachev, progress has been slow ``compared with what the Soviet Union has achieved in relations with major Western countries.''
The Soviets have hoped for joint economic activities in Sakhalin and the islands as part of improved bilateral ties.
But Japan has been cautious, responding cooly to Soviet overtures and indicating in the area of defense spending that it does not see much change in the Soviet stance.
While the United States, the Soviet Union, and European nations are decreasing military costs, Japan's budget for the next fiscal year is expected to grow by 6 percent, surpassing 4 trillion yen for the first time.
Japan points to little change in the status of Soviet military deployments in the region, as well as continuing tension in the Korean peninsula and the ongoing conflict in Cambodia.