NEW YORK – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Monday to advance negotiations on reaching a solution to a long-standing territorial dispute that has prevented the two countries from concluding a postwar peace treaty.
As part of such efforts, they agreed to continue talks on the sidelines of international conferences in November, including the Group of 20 summit in Turkey and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Philippines, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato.
Meeting on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Abe and Putin also agreed to look for the “best time” for Putin to visit Japan, Kato told reporters.
Kato said the timing would be based on an agreement struck between the two leaders last November in Beijing that they would start preparations for a Putin trip at an appropriate time in 2015.
The meeting came amid growing doubts in Japan about a Putin trip by the end of the year in the wake of repeated visits by Russian Cabinet members to parts of the disputed territory — four Japanese-claimed islands off Hokkaido held by Russia — despite Tokyo’s protests.
“I would still like to realize a visit to Japan by President Putin at the best time,” Abe was quoted by Kato as telling Putin. “To do so, we would like to prepare outcomes in the political area, mainly in peace treaty negotiations, as well as in economic and other areas.”
However, Abe pointed to the need to make such preparations “in a constructive and calm atmosphere,” according to Kato.
Abe was apparently criticizing an Aug. 22 visit to Etorofu Island by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and recent visits by other Russian Cabinet members to Etorofu and Kunashiri islands.
Etorofu, Kunashiri and two smaller islets — Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets — were seized by the Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender in World War II in 1945, and the ensuing territorial dispute has prevented the two countries from ever concluding a postwar peace treaty.
In the meeting, the start of which was open to the media, Abe said winning a fresh three-year term this month as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and thus effectively extending his time as prime minister, “has built solid ground for me to work with Vladimir to push forward peace treaty negotiations.”
“I would like to develop relations between the two countries,” he said.
Putin said in his opening remarks that the two countries have increased contact in various areas. But his statements focused largely on economic issues.
“I’m confident that Russia and Japan have high potential in economic cooperation,” he said. “A large number of joint projects back up such potential.”
The meeting came a week after their foreign ministers agreed to resume senior level talks on Oct. 8 regarding the row over the disputed territories.
Talks between senior officials were suspended in January last year due to tensions over the Ukraine crisis. In coordination with the United States and Europe, Japan imposed economic sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in southern Ukraine in March last year.