VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Friday to meet in Japan on Dec. 15 in a visit that few expect to yield a breakthrough in the decades-old territorial dispute between their respective countries.
While comments by Abe and government officials did not suggest the two leaders made any significant progress on the row over Russian-administered, Japan-claimed islands off Hokkaido’s east coast in their talks held on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in the city of Vladivostok, there are other incentives for the leaders to seek continued dialogue, political analysts said.
Still, the disagreement over the group of islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, has prevented the two countries from signing a post-World War II peace treaty.
James Brown, an associate professor at Temple University in Tokyo who specializes in Japan-Russia relations, said Moscow will welcome the upcoming talks in Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in December as a sign of Abe’s willingness to build a new bilateral relationship.
“From the Russian side this is very helpful because it shows that the U.S. policy of isolating Russia is not going entirely well,” he said.
For Moscow, deepening ties with Japan, a key U.S. ally in East Asia and a member of the Group of Seven advanced economies, is a way to ward off attempts to isolate Russia, still under economic sanctions imposed by the group in the wake of the annexation of the Crimea Peninsula in 2013 from Ukraine.
Tokyo had initially sought an official visit by Putin in 2014, but it was put off after the annexation of Crimea, which caused a deterioration in ties with the West and Japan.
Abe, who has repeatedly said he wishes to resolve the long-standing territorial dispute over the islets, also has security concerns in mind when strengthening Japan’s relationship with Russia, analysts said.
For its part, Japan is trying to counter the rise of China, with which it also has a territorial dispute.
Tokyo has increasingly grown alarmed by the heightened presence since last month of Chinese government ships around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, where a record-high number of such vessels have been spotted along with hundreds of Chinese fishing boats.
The uninhabited islets are also claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.
In addition, Japan has been calling on China to exercise restraint in its military buildup and other maritime actions in the contested waters of the South China Sea, a vital sea lane for oil imports to Japan.
Among other areas of cooperation, Abe and Putin agreed in their meeting in the port city of Vladivostok to continue exchanges between defense authorities of the two countries, according to a Japanese official who was at the talks.
Abe expressed willingness for joint drills between their maritime authorities and called for more talks between his senior national security adviser, Shotaro Yachi, who heads the secretariat at the National Security Council, and Putin’s close aide, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia.
Temple University’s Brown said, even without prospects of resolving the territorial dispute any time soon, Abe is “clearly influenced by the idea that closer ties with Russia makes sense for security reasons as well … Japan doesn’t want to be surrounded by a hostile North Korea, a hostile China and a hostile Russia.”
“It’s actually not a bad calculation even if (the territorial talks) come to nothing,” Brown said.
“What is the downside? At worst he ends with improved relations with Russia which provides economic opportunities and an improved security situation.”
“The Russian side is not going to embarrass him by making absolutely clear that he has no chance whatsoever (on retaking the islands). They will continue to show that they are willing to talk about the peace treaty,” he said.
With the island dispute remaining a relatively minor election issue, Abe appears to have limited risk of facing public backlash even if he fails to achieve a breakthrough in the territorial talks.
On Saturday, meanwhile, Abe suggested to Putin that the two countries hold annual bilateral summit talks in Vladivostok to strengthen economic cooperation and spur growth in the resource-rich region.
“Let us meet once a year in Vladivostok to confirm with each other the state of progress of these eight points,” Abe said at the economic forum held in the largest city in the Russian Far East, with Putin in attendance.
Abe was referring to the eight-point economic cooperation plan focused on development of the region, which he presented to Putin at their summit in May. The details of the plan were also discussed at Abe’s meeting with Putin the previous night.
Japan hopes that increasing economic cooperation with Russia can lead to a resolution of the bilateral territorial dispute.
“Let us make the Far East Russia region a base for exports to Asia and the Pacific region while raising productivity by moving forward with the diversification of Russian industries,” Abe said, noting the possibility of achieving bilateral cooperation in developing energy resources.
In concluding his speech at the forum, with South Korean President Park Geun-hye in attendance, Abe called for Putin’s support in seeking a postwar peace treaty between the two nations.
“I cannot help but say that it is an unnatural state of affairs that the important neighbors of Russia and Japan, which surely have unlimited potential, have to this day not yet concluded a peace treaty,” Abe said.
“Putting an end to the unnatural state of affairs that has continued these 70 years, shall we not together carve out a new era for Japan and Russia going forward?,” he said.
Abe’s remarks followed a meeting the previous evening where he and Putin discussed the issue. Abe told reporters after the meeting that he had “deep” talks about the peace treaty negotiations, without revealing details.
“Vladimir, in order to carve out towards the future bilateral relations overflowing with unlimited potential, I am resolved to putting forth all my strength to advance the relationship between Japan and Russia, together with you,” Abe said.