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Abe-Putin confidence-building must lead to resolving territorial dispute

Publication Date : 12-02-2014

 

The confidence-building relationship between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin has deepened, but now it is being put to the test.

Abe met with Putin Saturday after attending the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics for the fifth bilateral summit with the Russian leader since the prime minister returned to the post in December 2012.

Even though leaders of the United States and major European countries did not attend the opening ceremony citing Russia’s human rights record, Abe decided to visit Sochi on a tight three-day schedule.

Putin gave Abe a warm reception, saying, “I’m very grateful for your attendance at the opening ceremony,” and he hosted a luncheon for the prime minister. The meeting is believed to have been effective in building confidence between the two leaders, as seen by the fact that they called each other by their first names.

Putin’s visit to Japan this autumn was decided during the meeting. Hailing the recent expansion of bilateral trade, the Russian leader said he would dispatch his Cabinet ministers in charge of agriculture, railways and energy to Japan, plus top company executives.

Development of the Russian Far East and East Siberia is regarded by Putin as “a national project to be undertaken by the country on a priority basis in the 21st century.” Offering cooperation in the development of natural gas and other resources is expected to prove beneficial also for Japan, because of this country’s scarcity of fossil fuels.

The thing is that negotiations on the return of four Russian-occupied islands off Hokkaido, a major concern for Japan, have made little headway.

Resolution remains remote

Abe reportedly said he “wants to carry out talks in concrete terms.” In response, Putin was quoted as saying, “Efforts will be made toward a solution.” However, a political decision on the matter is a long way off.

In vice foreign ministerial talks in Tokyo late last month, the two countries failed to iron out their differences. Russia has repeated its conventional stance that the four northern islands became part of its territory as a result of World War II.

Japan should insist that Russia’s claim is not based on historical facts.

The former Soviet Union reneged on the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact and declared war on Japan in the closing days of World War II. It invaded the Kuril Islands after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration and it occupied the four islands, which it then unilaterally integrated into its territory. The four islands are not included in the Kuril Islands that Japan relinquished when it signed the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty.

Russia’s internal politics are also a matter of concern. To ward off public discontent, Putin has come up with populist policies. The situation does not seem ripe yet for Russia to make a concession on the northern territories.

Prior to his summit with Abe, Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and confirmed that the two countries would jointly sponsor events in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of their victory in World War II. Japan must realise that Beijing and Moscow are acting in concert in dealing with an issue involving Japan’s history.

To make progress in resolving the territorial issue, it is imperative to closely examine the true intentions of Putin administration’s domestic and foreign policies, while reinforcing Japan-Russia relations from a wide perspective.

 

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