A VAGUE outcome to last week's Japan-Soviet summit has let both sides off the hook of making promises neither can yet fulfill. President Mikhail Gorbachev ended his four-day visit to Japan by endorsing only obliquely a 1956 Soviet pledge conceding territory to Japan. Prime Minister Toshiski Kaifu, meanwhile, offered only an ambiguous "balanced expansion" of assistance for the Soviet economy.
Giving away Soviet soil at this time would have hurt Mr. Gorbachev's ability to rein in breakaway Soviet republics or his precarious stand with domestic hard-liners, his aides say. Japan is seeking a return of four northern islands occupied by the Soviet Army just after World War II.
Japan's leaders, in turn, avoided pledging the large-scale economic aid that they link to a return of the islands. Such Japanese largess would have put it out of sync with Washington, which is trying to restrain aid to Moscow until market reforms are in place. Also, with the chance of another crackdown in the Soviet Union, Japan was wary of appearing to embrace the Soviet economy.
Rather, with a "breakthrough" seen as unlikely before the summit on both the questions of territory and aid, the two sides instead noted that this first-ever visit to Japan by a Soviet leader achieved its primary goal of lessening historic animosity and promising more high-level talks.
"The fact that Gorbachev came to Japan at all and acknowledged the island issue are the most important points," said a leading politician, Kiichi Miyazawa. Before this, Moscow refused to talk about the dispute.
Still, the ambiguous wording in the summit's joint statement concerning the islands - hammered out over nine hours of sometimes sharp dialogue between Gorbachev and Mr. Kaifu - could cause future rankling between Moscow and Tokyo. The statements refer only to "positive elements" made in a 1956 joint declaration that set postwar relations between the two nations. To Japan, the key aspect of the declaration (which Moscow abandoned in 1960 when Japan signed a security treaty with the United States) was a Soviet promise to return two of the four islands after a peace treaty was signed.
Just after signing the summit's joint statement, Gorbachev tried to play down Japanese rumors that he had fully endorsed the 1956 declaration.
"We accepted those parts in the joint declaration that have produced results from a viewpoint of international law," he said. "But we did not revive what has not come into existence or what has lost a chance."
During his April 16-19 visit, Gorbachev referred to the Stalin-era taking of the islands as a mistake "by people of different generations who did not see things the way we do," but that past decisions "should not be hastily corrected."
Japanese officials said they accept that Gorbachev, beset by domestic troubles, could make only a partial official reference to the 1956 pact. "It was a very courageous act on his part," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe. Even that much, he added, shows that the Soviets acknowledge Japanese sovereignty over two islands.
And they point out that Gorbachev agreed to link a conclusion of a peace treaty to ending the territorial dispute. But officials were disappointed that Gorbachev refused to set a time frame for settlement.
When Valentin Fyodorov, a Soviet delegation member and the governor of the Far East island of Sakhalin, mentioned that 1992 might be a time to return the islands, he left Tokyo earlier than expected on what Soviet officials termed urgent business.
Just the beginning
"The joint statement is not the goal but the starting point for resolving the territorial dispute," stated an editorial in Yomiuri, a Japanese newspaper. Gorbachev also agreed to help Japan in removing a clause in the United Nations charter that refers to it as "a former enemy."
For all these concessions by the Soviets, Japan signed 15 documents dealing with trade, culture, environmental, nuclear power, fisheries, aviation, and aid for Chernobyl victims. A humanitarian aid program of $100 million was resumed after being suspended in January, following the Soviet crackdown in the Baltic states.
Gorbachev failed Japanese expectations of accounting for an estimated 55,000 Japanese internees who died in the Soviet Union after World War II. But the two sides agreed to work on the issue.
Japan also agreed to offer a large-scale program of advice to improve the Soviet economy along Japanese lines. Any further aid to Moscow from Japan will likely await a consensus with its Western partners at a July summit of seven leading industrial nations.
In two speeches, Gorbachev failed to convince Japanese business groups to invest in a problem-plagued Soviet Union. Without investment insurance from the Japanese government, which will only come after an end to the islands problem, companies are reluctant to take risks to tap resources in the Soviet Far East.
"It was disappointing that no specific measures came out in solving the territorial dispute," said Eiji Suzuki, head of the Japanese employers association.