• Kyodo

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In a potential setback for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing no signs of softening his stance on negotiations over concluding a peace treaty with Japan, instead focusing on a proposed joint economic project on disputed islands already rejected by Tokyo.

Speaking at a news conference in Lima on Sunday, Putin said concluding a World War II peace treaty with Japan that has been delayed for decades by the territorial row is “not an easy path.”

Putin said he is “ready for dialogue” toward resolving the sovereignty issue over the Russia-held islands northeast of Hokkaido, adding that “there are various options” for settling the row.

Putin said he discussed Russia’s proposal for joint economic activities on the disputed islands with Abe on Saturday and expressed his desire to make that happen.

Tokyo and Moscow have been in discussions ahead of a visit by Putin to Japan next month on implementing an eight-point bilateral package aimed at helping boost the overall Russian economy.

Japan, however, has rejected the proposal for joint economic projects on the islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories, saying Tokyo’s involvement would mean an implicit recognition of Russian sovereignty.

“There has been no change to Japan’s basic position that we will resolve the issue of the return of the four islands and (then) conclude the peace treaty,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo on Monday after Putin’s remarks.

For Japan, which has long held that it will pursue a peace treaty after first securing Russian recognition of Japanese sovereignty over the islands, Putin’s remarks indicate that a resolution on the issue remains a far-off prospect.

A senior Foreign Ministry official also ruled out joint business activities on the islands, saying such a move is “not something we can easily abide” due to the sovereignty issue.

The Russian leader’s stance is sure to throw cold water on Japanese expectations that next month’s much-hyped Abe-Putin summit will yield a breakthrough on the islands.

“The issue of the Northern Territories has gone unresolved for 70 years, so … it’s not an easy problem that can be resolved in one fell swoop,” Suga said Monday.

“I think (Abe and Putin) will negotiate from the standpoint of covering each issue that needs to be covered, one by one, to resolve the return of the four islands and conclude a peace treaty,” he said.

Putin’s remarks so close to the summit, which Abe has framed as a golden opportunity to make progress on the intractable territorial row, have left Tokyo scrambling to use diplomatic routes in a bid to figure out his true intentions.

He made the comments at a news conference in the Peruvian capital on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum held over the weekend, having met Abe the previous day.

Abe told Putin on Saturday he hopes to send Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to Russia ahead of next month’s summit as he seeks to close the gap between the governments on the islands issue ahead of the talks.

The four islands are Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, which were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II in 1945. The islands are known in Russia as the Southern Kurils.

Moscow has said it stands by a 1956 Japan-Soviet Union joint declaration that states the small island of Shikotan and the Habomai islet group will be returned to Japan upon the conclusion of a peace treaty.

But “it’s not written on what basis, under whose sovereignty (Shikotan and Habomai fall) and under what conditions they should be returned,” Putin said Sunday.

“The Southern Kurils are now territory under Russian sovereignty,” he said, indicating he will not easily compromise on the issue.

Putin’s visit to Japan next month is set to include talks on Dec. 15 in Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi. Abe told Putin on Saturday that he also wants to hold a further meeting in Tokyo on Dec. 16.

The leaders agreed to accelerate negotiations toward concluding the peace treaty when they met in May in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Abe presented to Putin an eight-point economic cooperation plan.

Since then, the Abe government has primarily stressed the importance of the treaty negotiations, while remarks out of Moscow have centered on the potential for economic cooperation.

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