When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in the Russian resort town of Sochi in May, they agreed on one thing: the need for a new approach to settling the dispute over four islands off Hokkaido.
The islands, which the Soviet Union seized toward the end of World War II, stretch to the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula and are the subject of a 71-year-old dispute that has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty to formally end the war.
Because Putin finally plans to visit Japan in December, speculation is growing the two sides might start the process of resolving the dispute.
Critics say the two leaders, both boasting strong electoral mandates, are expected to make progress as Russia and Japan mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year.
Let’s take a closer look at what could happen when Abe hosts Putin in his hometown of Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture.
How is Tokyo trying to resolve the territorial dispute?
According to several reports, Japan has a two-track approach that entails accepting the return of the Habomai islets and Shikotan while continuing negotiations for the return of the two larger islands, Kunashiri and Etorofu.
Tokyo might also propose putting Kunashiri and Etorofu under tentative joint administration while offering economic cooperation and seeking visa-free visits to the islands by Japanese, some reports say.
Some 17,000 Russians reside on the four isles, according to the Foreign Ministry, and Russia has built hundreds of military structures on Kunashiri and Etorofu.
Is this approach new?
Tokyo’s official stance is that the two countries should settle who owns all four isles before signing a peace treaty.
But in the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration that normalized diplomatic relations, the former Soviet Union agreed to hand over Habomai and Shikotan only after a peace treaty was signed.
The two-track approach has been supported by politicians including Muneo Suzuki, an influential former Diet member from Hokkaido. Suzuki, who has an extensive network of contacts in the Kremlin, has been advising Abe on the matter since the end of last year.
Officially speaking, Abe says Japan’s stance is that the four islands must be returned. But a source close to him says he is not necessarily sticking to this stance in order to break the stalemate.
Other top figures, including Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Nobuo Kishi, senior vice foreign minister and Abe’s younger brother, said Tokyo will mull as many options as possible to end the dispute.
Will Putin accept this?
It is uncertain, but Putin has shown a willingness to adhere to the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration. In 2001, he and then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori signed the Irkutsk Statement, the first official document to recognize the 1956 declaration as a basic legal document. Nobuo Shimotomai, a Hosei University professor and specialist in Japan-Russia relations, said the two-track scenario somewhat follows the Irkutsk Statement.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hinted last week that the gradual approach was still viable.
“With regard to the territorial dispute, it requires more patience, and a phased approach is needed,” Peskov told Russian news agency RIA Novosti. “Most importantly, it requires a reliable base in terms of mutual trust, which arises during the development of trade and economic relations.”
“Peskov’s message can be interpreted as meaning both sides can agree to settle the issue if they take a gradual approach over a longer time span,” Shimotomai said.
Economic cooperation could be key. When Abe visited Sochi in May, he proposed an eight-point economic cooperation plan that reportedly amounts to nearly ¥1 trillion. He also tasked Hiroshige Seko, minister of economy, trade and industry, with pursuing economic cooperation with Russia, indicating he is serious about moving the issue forward.
Seko said last week that he aims to visit Moscow before Abe meets with Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in Peru in November and flesh out the plan.
James Brown, an associate professor at Temple University, said he is skeptical the Kremlin will accept the plan because leaving room for negotiations over Etorofu and Kunashiri does not resolve the problem for the Russians.
“The Putin administration would be willing to transfer Habomai and Shikotan in exchange for the peace treaty and put an end to this issue, if Japan gives up on the other two islands,” said Brown.
Brown also said that at the summit in December, it might be more realistic for both sides to agree on less critical issues, such as visa-free access to the islands by Japanese citizens. This would benefit Abe by producing progress for Japan and help Putin by bringing much needed economic assistance and development to the islands, he said.
What factors could hamper their efforts to reach a deal?
One risk that could spoil Abe’s delicate balancing act with Russia is the United States.
President Barack Obama was wary of Abe’s visit to Sochi in May, when Russia was still under international sanctions for its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Obama reportedly told Abe not to go to Sochi but was rebuffed.
Abe maintains that Crimea and the isles off Hokkaido are separate issues, and his government has sought to allay U.S. officials by saying that improving Japan-Russia ties would benefit regional security.
Abe is also thinking post-Obama. When Abe met with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton last month in New York, the former secretary of state accepted Abe’s engagement with Russia, according to Kurt Campbell, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under Clinton.
Yet Brown of Temple University warns that the international climate surrounding Syria could be risky for Abe. He said any aggressive actions by Russia in Syria — including the bombing of hospitals or U.S. assets close to the December summit — will put Abe in a difficult situation.
Engagement with Russia could anger Japan’s Group of Seven colleagues, especially with U.S.-Russia relations hitting rock bottom over Syria.
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