National / Politics

Abe-Putin chat may clarify 'new approach' to isle row

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet on Friday on the sidelines of the Far Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, the focus will be on whether their “new approach” to a peace treaty to formally end World War II will come to fruition.

At an informal meeting in May in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, the two leaders agreed to take a new tack to solving the territorial dispute over four islands off Hokkaido called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Kuril Islands in Russia, noting that no progress had been made since the war.

In the closing days of World War II, the then-Soviet Union invaded three islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group after declaring war on Japan on Aug. 9, 1945. The dispute has prevented the two countries from signing a formal peace treaty.

Neither side has yet to elaborate on what the new approach comprises, but drips of the plan have apparently been leaked.

The daily Mainichi Shimbun on Thursday said Tokyo would propose allowing the 17,000 Russian residents of the isles to remain there once the two sides agree the disputed territory belongs to Japan, citing government sources.

A Foreign Ministry official has hinted Japan will propose a major shift in policy by adopting an economic cooperation package even if the peace talks make no progress. In Sochi, Abe proposed an eight-point economic cooperation plan that included investment in Russia’s Far East.

As part of the plan, Abe is likely to announce that the government-backed Japan Bank for International Cooperation and trading house Mitsui & Co. are considering investing in a Russian state-run power utility. Another trading house, the Mitsubishi Group, is reportedly interested in building a methanol plant that would use offshore gas in Sakhalin.

“The energy deal would be something that would benefit the Japanese side,” a high-ranking ministry official said. “Prime Minister Abe is thinking more strategically when he says ‘new approach.’ ”

Developing the Far East is one of Putin’s priorities. In 2013, he said that the development of Siberia and the Far East must be Russia’s national priority for the entire 21st century.

Still, development in the region, which is about two-thirds the size of the United States, has been slowed by corruption and a depopulation problem that persists despite government initiatives offering free land.

Last year, Russia started up the Far Eastern Economic Forum in an effort to increase foreign investment there and raked in 1.8 trillion rubles. And participation by Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will be a welcome addition as it seeks even more investment to spur development.

The two leaders appear enthusiastic about the talks. This will be Abe’s fourth time visiting Putin without a reciprocal visit since April 2013. On Tuesday, the Kremlin surprised Tokyo by announcing that Putin would make a long-waited visit to Japan in December; the Japanese government was unable to confirm the schedule.

On Thursday, the government announced that Abe will create a new ministerial position to handle Russian economic cooperation and appointed Hiroshige Seko to the role in addition to his duties as economy, trade and industry minister.

Nevertheless, Japan and Russia will have to overcome one fundamental difference before the territorial issue can be solved.

The Kremlin emphasizes the importance of the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration stating that two of the islands, Habomai and Shikotan, will be returned to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty. Japan, however, maintains that a peace treaty can only be signed after the territorial dispute involving all four islands is settled and that the isles remain illegally occupied.

It is also unclear whether the new approach will produce the desired outcome for Japan when the Russian public does not support a change in the status quo. A recent poll by Moscow pollster the Levada Center showed that only 38 percent of Russians consider it important to sign a peace treaty with Japan, while 78 percent oppose returning any of the islands.

Ukeru Magosaki, former ambassador to Uzbekistan, said a major deal was out of the question mostly because of the surge in Russian nationalism that occurred after international sanctions were imposed over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine in 2014.

“Russia cannot return these two small islands because of the increased nationalism,” Magosaki said at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Wednesday. “It could be changed once the western countries want to establish a friendly relationship with Russia and then Russia could be more realistic and they could return to their obligation to return the two islands.”

The disputed islands are also becoming strategically important for the Russian military, possibly making it difficult to hand them over to Japan.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in May said that Moscow would deploy a range of coastal missile systems and consider the possibility of building a naval base on the disputed isles.

Yu Koizumi of the Institute for Future Engineering said the isles would help Russia defend the Sea of Okhotsk, where its SSBN submarines patrol as a deterrent against the nuclear arsenal of the United States.

“Russia might not necessarily need the Northern Territories to defend the area, but it might use them as bargaining power against Japan,” said Koizumi, who is an expert on the Russian military.

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