Improving relations with Russia

Japan and Russia on Aug. 19 held a high-level meeting between officials of both countries’ foreign ministries and agreed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Vladimir Putin will meet Sept. 5 on the fringe of the summit of the Group of 20 leaders to be held in St. Petersburg. The planned meeting will help give impetus to efforts to build a relationship of mutual trust.

The biggest issue between Japan and Russia is a dispute over the sovereignty of the Northern Territories — four islands northeast of the coast of Hokkaido that are occupied and controlled by Russia. Japan should not rush to make a move to resolve the dispute. It is a delicate issue that requires a careful approach. Japan needs patience, perseverance and a well-thought-out strategy.

On April 29, Mr. Abe and Mr. Putin met in Moscow and agreed to restart talks toward a peace treaty. They agreed that it is abnormal that the two countries have not yet signed a peace treaty and that accelerated talks would lead to a mutually acceptable resolution of the territorial issue. It is important that both leaders deepen mutual trust by making use of their chances to meet in the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in February 2014 and at the 2014 Group of Eight summit in June in the same city.

Japan should bear no illusion that the talks will go smoothly. The stances of Japan and Russia are far apart. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin said before the Abe-Putin meeting in April that Japan should keep silent over territories it lost as a result its unconditional surrender in a war that it started.

Japan’s position is that the four islands should be returned to Japan. Yet, when Mr. Putin met with former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in February in Moscow, he emphasized the need for both Russia and Japan to find common ground and used the Japanese word hikiwake, which means a draw or a tie.

The Japanese government should prepare for finely tuned negotiations, taking into consideration a wide range of possibilities and options. It also should emphasize to Russia that Japan is the most appropriate partner, in terms of technology and trust, for helping it to develop its energy resources and infrastructure in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Tokyo should try to deepen bilateral ties with Moscow in an effort to improve the regional security environment and to facilitate a resolution of the territorial issue. But in doing so, it should avoid giving the impression to China and South Korea that Japan aims to improve ties with Russia to gain an advantage against them.