Thorny territorial dispute overshadows upcoming Abe-Putin summit

China Daily
Zhang Tao

TOKYO - Russian President Vladimir Putin will arrive in Japan on Thursday to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe though analysts have pointed out that prospect of the summit has been largely undermined by a decades-old territorial row.

Putin, whose two-day visit was initially eyed in 2014 but postponed due to deterioration of bilateral ties following the Ukraine crisis, will be the first Russian president to travel to Japan for a summit in 11 years. The meeting will also be the 16th one between Abe and Putin.

The two leaders will first meet on Thursday at a traditional Japanese hotel in the hot spa resort of Nagato in Abe's home prefecture of Yamaguchi to address the territorial dispute before another round of talks focusing on economic cooperation in Tokyo on Friday, according to the Japanese government.

Russia and Japan have not signed a peace treaty since the end of World War II mainly due to a territory row over four small islands in the Pacific which are called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia.

Japan maintains the four Pacific islands are its inherent territory illegally occupied by Russia after Japan's surrender in World War II, while Russia, for its part, says the seizure was legitimate and urges Japan to recognize the outcome of the war.

Japan has hoped in recent years to bring progress to the territorial talks through deepening economic cooperation with Russia and helping Russia develop its Far East.

Analysts, however, have pointed out that though Russia might be interested in economic cooperation with Japan, it is unlikely to make concessions on the territorial issue.

Abe expressed on Monday his determination to resolve the dispute, saying that he will "approach the bilateral summit with determination to bring an end to the territorial issue during my generation."

"I will make an all-out effort to make progress on the territorial issue, even if it is just a step closer toward a solution," he said.

Putin, however, said the following day in an interview with Japanese TV that there was no territorial issue between Russia and Japan over the four islands.

"We believe we have no territorial problems at all. It is only Japan that believes it has territorial problems with Russia. We are ready to talk about this," Putin said citing a joint declaration in 1956 between the two countries.

According to the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, Russia agreed to return two of the four islands after a bilateral peace treaty was signed, while Japan refused to sign such a treaty, insisting on the return of all four islands.

The conclusion of a peace treaty will "depend, among other things, on the flexibility" of Japan, said Putin, adding that Russia also wants full-scale normalization of relations.

It was not the first time that Putin made similar remarks on the territorial dispute, in spite of Japan's hopes otherwise.

In an interview with Bloomberg early September before meeting with Abe in Vladivostok on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), Putin said Russia did not "trade territories."

Russia has also stepped up its control over the islands by reportedly deploying in November Bastion and Bal coastal defense missile systems on two of the disputed islands.

There should be no high expectations for any immediate progress on the signing of a peace treaty between Russia and Japan due to difficulties in ironing out differences, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in early December.

Meanwhile, another issue that also obstructs Japan's intended economic cooperation with Russia as well as bilateral ties is the sanctions Japan has slapped on Russia along with its western allies following Russia's takeover of Crimea.

"Japan has joined the sanctions against the Russian Federation. How are we going to further economic relations on a new and much higher basis, at a higher level under the sanctions regime?" Putin reportedly told the Japanese media on Tuesday.

The two countries are expected to nail down some 30 economic cooperation projects during the upcoming summit between Abe and Putin, according to local media, though some Japanese enterprises are concerned over the uncertainties of Russia's investment environment over the Japanese sanctions.

There have also been concerns over the attitude of the United States, as Washington, Japan's military ally, has had a tense relationship with Russia following the Ukraine crisis, though hopes for a change have been raised following Donald Trump's win in US presidential election, who was reported to have a new approach to Russia.

"Japan-Russia relationship has been closely related to the Japan-US relationship since the 1950s," said Yoshiki Mine, former diplomat and representative of the Institute of Peaceful Diplomacy.

"It is important for Japan to remake its negotiation strategy with Russia in line with the Japan-US relationship under the new US administration to be led by Donald Trump, including the sanctions against Russia," he said.


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