Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida discussed the possibility of signing a post-World War II peace treaty with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov during talks in Tokyo on Friday. They agreed to lay the groundwork for an unofficial visit to Russia by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is eager to solve a territorial dispute that has been a thorn in ties since 1945.
“We had a very forward-looking discussion to seek a possible solution for the peace treaty, which is the biggest bilateral concern,” Kishida told a joint news conference after the meeting.
Lavrov reiterated comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has said he would welcome a visit by Abe.
Neither the timing nor the location of the visit were announced, although it has been reported that Abe will call on Putin in the Russian city of Sochi, not Moscow, in May.
The choice of Sochi would be an apparent effort to placate the United States, which has said it believes the time is not right for business as usual with the Russian government.
The Japanese government believes Abe’s visit may lay the foundation for an official visit to Tokyo by Putin, whose planned visit in 2014 was canceled amid tensions over Ukraine. It was never rescheduled, given other factors that weighed on relations including a visit by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last August to Etorofu in defiance of protests by Tokyo.
The two leaders talked on the sidelines of the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and a Group of 20 summit last November in Turkey, but Tokyo believes the pair need to spend more time together if they are to hammer out a solution to the territorial row.
Solving the dispute and signing the post-World War II peace treaty is a top priority for Abe, who wants to settle all postwar diplomatic issues during his tenure.
Abe and Putin agreed to seek “a solution acceptable to both sides” in the dispute during the prime minister’s visit to Russia in April 2013.
Still, a huge gap remains over how to proceed with the peace treaty.
For Japan, upholding Japanese sovereignty over the Russian-held Northern Territories — known as the Southern Kurils in Russia — is a prerequisite to signing a peace treaty, and Kishida said that the two countries have to find positions that each side is able to accept.
Lavrov repeated Russia’s position that postwar historical realities must be recognized. Russia argues that Etorofu, Shikotan, Kunashiri and the Habomai group of islets became Russian territory after the war.
“We are prepared to continue our dialogue under any circumstances,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov also cited the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration stating that two of the four disputed islands — Shikotan and Habomai islets — will revert to Japan following the peace treaty.
The two sides also agreed to hold high-level negotiations on concluding a WWII peace treaty after Abe’s visit.
Negotiations have stalled, particularly after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Japan joined the United States and European countries in imposing sanctions on Russia.
In an apparent protest over that move, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov last September said Moscow considers the territorial claim to be dead in the water.
Still, both sides have been inching toward middle ground. They resumed high-level negotiations last October for the first time in almost 19 months, followed by teleconferences between Abe and Putin, and Kishida and Lavrov, this year.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has recently sent political heavyweights over to Russia, including LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura in January and, more recently, policy research chief Tomomi Inada.
Meanwhile, Kishida and Lavrov also discussed areas of global concern such as North Korea. The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted the toughest resolutions yet against the North, which conducted a nuclear test in January and then launched a rocket that was widely seen as a test of a mid-range missile.
While Japan stands with the rest of the international community in maintaining pressure on North Korea amid its escalated provocations, Lavrov argued for a softening of Tokyo’s position. Moscow has maintained friendly relations with Pyongyang.
“We think the North Korean issue will only be solved through political and diplomatic means,” Lavrov said.
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