Japan is ramping up bilateral relations with Russia with plans to hold vice minister-level economic talks in Tokyo this month, officials familiar with the discussions said.
It is understood the Abe administration hopes increased bilateral economic activity will pave the way for President Vladimir Putin to visit Japan this year, a move seen as key to advancing stalled negotiations for the return of the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.
“We would like to make (the talks) happen in the latter half of this month,” a Foreign Ministry official said monday. “Both sides are positive about it.”
The talks are expected to focus on energy sector cooperation and improving investment conditions in Russia as its economy feels the effect of lower oil prices — its major export — and economic sanctions imposed by Western countries over the Ukraine crisis.
Yasumasa Nagamine, deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, is expected to represent Japan at the talks, while the Russian delegation is likely to be led by Alexey Likhachev, first deputy minister of economic development.
The talks would precede a planned visit to Ukraine by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in June, a sign that Tokyo aims to maintain a balance between its ties with Moscow and Kiev.
A planned visit by Putin to Japan last year was put off due to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, an act condemned by Tokyo and other members of the international community. Japanese officials have said the rescheduling of Putin’s visit has yet to be decided.
Following an agreement between Abe and Putin last November to resume vice minister-level talks, Japan and Russia had initially planned to hold economic talks in March before they were postponed.
The two governments held a political dialogue in February in Moscow.
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