TOKYO/MOSCOW – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed holding direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in November on the sidelines of the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday.
The proposal, made during talks over the telephone Sunday, appears to indicate Abe’s eagerness to maintain bilateral dialogue despite difficulties in arranging Putin’s planned fall visit to Japan after Tokyo slapped Moscow with sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.
In the teleconference, Putin also expressed his willingness to hold talks with Abe but did not elaborate on the timing of a meeting, a government source said.
“The prime minister told President Putin that it is important to hold dialogue between Japan and Russia on the occasion of international conferences, including the APEC summit,” Suga said at a news conference.
“Both leaders agreed that the continuation of bilateral dialogue is important,” Suga added.
Japan is expected to announce additional sanctions against Russia soon as Tokyo remains in step with the United States and Europe over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Abe has been put in the difficult position of working with other Group of Seven nations while at the same time fostering a trusting personal relationship with Putin in order to solve the long-standing dispute over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.
The territorial dispute over the islands — called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia — has prevented the two countries from signing a post-World War II peace treaty.
Abe expressed his readiness to talk directly with Putin on the sidelines of the annual APEC summit, which this time around will be held in Beijing, according to NHK.
“It is our national interest to conclude a peace treaty between Japan and Russia. In that sense, leaders’ talks are indispensable,” Abe told NHK on Monday.
His 10-minute telephone conversation with Putin took place on Abe’s 60th birthday and was held at the request of the Russian side. Moscow apparently had intended to feel out Tokyo’s stance toward the country after the earlier sanctions and the Ukraine crisis.
Putin’s planned fall visit was also discussed, government sources said.
Having met five times since Abe took office in December 2012, Putin wished him a happy birthday and Abe expressed his gratitude, according to the Foreign Ministry.
While hoping that Abe’s ties with Putin will aid in the resolution of the territorial dispute, Tokyo is poised to add to the sanctions.
Earlier this month, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori became the first prominent figure to meet Putin — giving him a letter from Abe — since the Ukraine crisis erupted.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, are unlikely to meet on the sidelines of U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York later this week, apparently due to Moscow’s reluctance, sources familiar with bilateral relations said.
Earlier this month, Japan told Russia it was eager for Kishida and Lavrov to meet, but Russia has yet to give a clear response, according to the sources.