BEIJING - In a move that Japan hopes will ultimately lead to a breakthrough in a long-running territorial row, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed to begin preparations for Putin’s visit to Tokyo at a time “suitable next year,” a Japanese official said.
The agreement, reached during talks Sunday ahead of the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Chinese capital, came after Putin’s scheduled trip to Japan this fall was postponed.
Abe, who since taking office in December 2012 had held talks with Putin six times before Sunday, is keen to maintain the dialogue in order to make headway on efforts to resolve the dispute over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido. The issue has prevented the two countries from concluding a postwar peace treaty.
When Abe and Putin met in Sochi, southern Russia, in February, they agreed on a visit to Japan this fall. That plan fell through after Japan joined the United States and European nations in imposing sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine conflict.
As part of efforts to bring about a Putin visit, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida may travel to Russia, while the two leaders agreed to resume a vice ministerial-level meeting, the Japanese official said.
Moscow called off a meeting at this level in retaliation for Tokyo imposing further sanctions over Ukraine, in step with the United States and Europe.
Japan’s sanctions against Russia, in the wake of Moscow’s continued support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of a large portion of the Crimean Peninsula, include an asset freeze on Russian officials involved in the conflict.
In his 90-minute meeting with Putin, Abe expressed grave concern over the current tensions in Ukraine, saying a recent election by separatists in the east to assert the region’s independence from Kiev is “complicating the situation,” the official said.
Abe called for full implementation of a cease-fire agreement between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian separatists, and strongly urged Russia to “take a constructive role” in defusing tensions there, according to the official.
Japan faces a delicate balancing act in dealing with the United States, its key ally, and Russia, as Washington is trying to isolate Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
On the ownership dispute over the islands called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, the two leaders did not specifically discuss a solution, the official said.
But they did reaffirm they will continue dialogue to find a mutually acceptable solution in line with a bilateral accord reached during their talks in Russia in April 2013.
The islands were seized by the former Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender in World War II on Aug. 15, 1945. Japan is seeking recognition of its ownership of the islands — Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets — while taking the position that it will be flexible about how and when they are returned.
Moscow agreed in a 1956 deal to return Shikotan and Habomai following the conclusion of a peace treaty.
At the outset of their meeting Sunday, a portion of which was open to reporters, the leaders expressed their desire to move forward negotiations to conclude a postwar peace treaty.
“I would like to take time today to thoroughly talk about negotiations in concluding the peace treaty as well as international affairs,” Abe told Putin, according to a press pool report.
Citing efforts over negotiations to conclude the peace treaty in recent years, Putin was quoted as saying to Abe: “I hope we can share our views on (future) cooperation between our countries.”