SOCHI, RUSSIA – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Saturday that Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Japan in the fall, as the two countries try to resolve a territorial dispute that has prevented them from signing a peace treaty following World War II.
The announcement came after the leaders met earlier in the day in Sochi, Russia, where Abe attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics on Friday in the absence of U.S. and many European leaders in protest at Russia’s handling of human rights issues.
“We agreed that President Putin will visit Japan this fall,” Abe said at a press conference following the meeting.
Russia’s news agency Interfax reported that Putin’s visit is possible in October or November, citing the president’s representative.
“Japan and Russia must address difficult problems as soon as possible and conclude a peace treaty,” Abe told the news conference, referring to the long-standing territorial dispute over the four Russian-administered islands off Hokkaido. The issue “should never be left to the next generations.”
Abe and Putin agreed their countries should accelerate bilateral talks on the issue, Japanese officials said. Tokyo hopes the planned visit by Putin will help give momentum to the negotiations as the two sides remain unable to narrow their differences significantly despite repeated contacts over the past year.
Abe also said he wants to hold talks with Putin in June, when Russia will host a summit of the Group of Eight nations in Sochi.
The latest meeting in the Black Sea resort was their fifth in a year.
Putin hailed the recent increase in trade between Japan and Russia. “We have seen a good environment be created that could help resolve the most difficult problem in bilateral relations,” he said at the beginning of the meeting, which was open to the press.
He also expressed appreciation of Abe’s attendance at the opening of the Olympics. U.S. President Barack Obama and many European leaders did not attend the opening ceremony in protest at anti-gay legislation enacted by Russia last year.
Abe’s visit apparently reflects his desire to enhance mutual trust with Putin.
They also agreed to promote bilateral security dialogue and enhance comprehensive economic cooperation, including Japanese investment in developing the Russian Far East, where abundant oil and gas reserves have been confirmed.
When meeting in Moscow last April, their first summit since Abe assumed office in December 2012, the leaders said in a joint statement their countries will seek to “work out a solution acceptable to both sides over the peace treaty issue.”
Abe and Putin have since met three times on the sidelines of international conferences, confirming their commitment to dialogue on necessary steps to address issues of bilateral concern.
Japanese and Russian officials have engaged in talks to resolve the dispute over the islands, known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan.
Tokyo claims that Soviet forces continued an offensive against Japan after it surrendered in World War II, seizing control of all four islands from Aug. 28 to Sept. 5, 1945.
In past bilateral talks, Japan has said if Russia acknowledges the four islands belong to Japan, Tokyo is prepared to respond flexibly on the timing and manner of their return, but Russia has shown no sign of recognizing Japanese ownership.
Abe and Putin confirmed they will promote economic cooperation in both public and private sectors, the officials said.
Japan and Russia are scheduled to hold a forum in March in Tokyo, where Russian economic ministers and business leaders will meet with their Japanese counterparts and discuss cooperation in the areas of agriculture, medical services, urban development and energy.
On security, Abe conveyed to Putin his intention to pursue more strategic dialogue with Russia, apparently considering the situation in East Asia, where Tokyo faces threats such as North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programs, and China’s increasingly assertive maritime activities.
Russia is a close ally of both China and North Korea.
In November, Japan and Russia held for the first time the so-called two-plus-two meeting in Tokyo, in which their defense and foreign ministers agreed to expand joint exercises between their defense forces and advance cooperation in multilateral consultative frameworks covering security affairs in the Asia-Pacific region.