Visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed Friday to start talks on potential “joint economic activities” they could launch on the four disputed Russia-held islands off Hokkaido, saying it could be an important first step toward resolving their decades-long territorial row.
The leaders also announced an expansion in economic cooperation comprising about 80 business deals between companies and government bodies from both sides.
A senior government official said Japan’s combined investments, loans and credit line for Russia will total ¥300 billion under the deals.
But whether the agreements, which concluded the high-profile summit in Japan, will lead to substantial progress on the isles issue is anyone’s guess.
Abe said any joint economic activities would be conducted under a special legal system that will ensure that each country can retain its legal arguments in the territorial dispute.
Russia insists the islands are its territory and that Russian law would apply to any economic activities on them. Tokyo argues that Moscow is illegally occupying the islands and that any application of Russian law would be unacceptable.
How the two countries will get around this remains unclear.
Putin — at least in public — has shown few signs that he’s ready to make concessions in the territorial dispute. He says economic cooperation should be promoted first to build confidence between the two countries.
Recently, Putin has argued that there is no territorial dispute with Japan, an apparent back-tracking from earlier hints that he would be willing to discuss the issue based on the 1956 Soviet-Japanese joint declaration.
In signing the 1956 document, the then-Soviet Union agreed to hand over two of the four islands after concluding a peace treaty with Japan. The document is still considered active by Russia and Japan.
At their joint news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo, Putin pointed out that bilateral trade between Russia and Japan shrank considerably this year.
He attributed the fall to changes in currency exchange rates, declining prices for natural resources, and Japanese economic sanctions slapped on Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“First we need to improve the economic relationship,” Putin said through a translator.
He also argued that Russia and Japan should stop engaging in debates over the history of the territorial row and focus instead on economic cooperation, including on the disputed islands.
“We should build up the joint economic mechanism that the prime minister has proposed. It’s important to move forward to the conclusion of a peace treaty based on this foundation,” Putin said.
But a lack of tangible progress on the dispute is a major setback for Abe.
Abe claimed to have a close rapport with Putin and was trying to win major concessions from Moscow during the two days of talks, which ended Friday.
Still, Abe touted the agreement as a key first step toward building more trust with Moscow, which Japanese officials hope will promote progress in future talks.
“I’m convinced of the legitimacy of Japan’s position and Vladimir is convinced of Russia’s own. We cannot resolve (the dispute) no matter how many times we argue over the cause with each other,” Abe said.
“We should not stick to the past only, and need to build up a win-win relationship” through economic cooperation first, Abe added.
At the news conference, Putin invited Abe to visit Russia and Abe pledged to continue negotiations over the territorial issue.
But time may not be on Abe’s side, at least in the foreseeable future. Oil prices have recently rebounded and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who will take office in January, is expected to considerably improve the Russia-U.S. relationship.
Both factors will strengthen Russia’s position on the global stage and reduce any need for Putin to make major concessions and win more economic cooperation from Japan, experts say.
Later the day, during a live interview on NHK, Abe confirmed the difficulty of the task by saying the territorial row is “not something you can resolve over (the next) couple of years,” but revealed that he and Putin had agreed to settle the issue “within our own generation.”
Earlier, a high-ranking government official acknowledged that the situation for Japan remained “tough” as far as the islands go.
At the same time, the same official emphasized that it will take more time to resolve the row despite widespread media speculation that Moscow would signal a willingness to concede at least two of the four islands during the summit.
“It’s not such an easy task,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We’ve said we want to make some progress, even if it may be just one or two steps forward.”
During Friday’s talks, the two leaders also agreed to consider simplifying procedures for letting former Japanese residents of the islands visit their hometowns. The measures would be taken for humanitarian reasons, they said in a joint statement. The average age of the 6,000 or so remaining former residents was 80.7 as of March.