• Kyodo

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Germany on Sunday backed Japan’s bid to seek top-level bilateral talks with Moscow to settle the long-simmering territorial dispute over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, a Japanese official said, contrasting sharply with the United States, which had cautioned against the move.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a meeting on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in Schloss Elmau, south of Munich, that talks with Russian leaders on Japan’s claim to the small islands are key to settling the dispute. The territorial row remains unsettled 70 years after the end of World War II.

The Abe government is hoping to invite President Vladimir Putin to visit Japan later this year.

Abe had asked Putin to visit in fall 2014, but the plan was nixed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March last year and the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.

Merkel responded that she “supported” Abe’s efforts to settle a territorial dispute by directly contacting the Russian side, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko told reporters.

The German leader was quoted as saying that the resolution of any territorial dispute is a good thing, and that Berlin is ready to do what it can to help Abe’s efforts.

U.S. officials had urged the Abe administration not to seek closer ties with Russia, stressing that a G-7 show of solidarity in getting tough on Moscow is crucial to enforcing the economic sanctions over last year’s annexation of Crimea.

During their summit in Washington in late April, President Barack Obama urged Abe to exercise caution with his plan to invite Putin, according to Japanese sources.

Overall policy toward Russia and details about the sanctions, including the duration of the penalties, vary between the U.S. and the G-7’s European members, with their history of mutual economic dependence. The other G-7 members are Britain, Canada, France and Italy.

Also on the summit fringes, French President Francois Hollande told Abe that he completely “understood” Abe’s position on bilateral talks with Russia, including potential talks with Putin, Seko said.

In a separate meeting, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told Abe that the unity and solidarity of the G-7 is key in dealing with the Ukrainian crisis, Seko said, adding that Renzi did not directly comment on Abe’s bid for bilateral talks.

The former Soviet Union seized the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shokotan and the Habomai islet group at the end of the war, and the dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing a postwar peace treaty.

On the Ukrainian crisis, Abe and Hollande agreed on the importance of all countries concerned, including Russia, to implement a cease-fire deal between government forces and pro-Russia rebels.

The two leaders also voiced shared concern over China’s massive reclamation projects in disputed areas of the South China Sea, which has continued despite objections by other claimants, Seko said.

China has built artificial islands and constructed facilities in the area, souring ties with neighbors including Vietnam and the Philippines.

Abe and Hollande also said they were committed to working toward a United Nations climate change conference to be hosted by France later this year, Seko added.

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