Donald Trump’s election as the next U.S. president is likely to make it easier for Japan to seek further talks with Russia on a decades-old territorial dispute by allowing it to take advantage of Trump’s more favorable stance toward Moscow.
But Trump’s willingness to engage in closer dialogue with President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to see Russia soften its position on the dispute in the near future, including during Putin’s visit to Japan later this month.
“Trump’s election is good news” for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approach to Russia, said James Brown, associate professor at Temple University in Japan. Tokyo can pursue economic and security cooperation “without the fear of criticism from the United States.”
The more hostile Obama administration had urged Abe to think twice about inviting Putin to Japan, citing the need to preserve unity among the Group of Seven countries in imposing sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014.
Putin will be the first Russian president to visit Japan for a bilateral event in 11 years. He will meet with Abe on Dec. 15 in Nagato in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi, and in Tokyo the following day, to discuss Japan’s claim to Russian-held islands off Hokkaido and the need to sign a post-World War II peace treaty, among other bilateral issues.
Trump’s election, however, “does not help Japan at all on getting the islands back because Russia has always been inflexible on the issue,” Brown said of the four isles off Hokkaido.
In telephone talks after the election, Trump and Putin agreed to improve bilateral ties that have been strained for years and seek constructive relations on a wide range of issues such as the economy and trade, according to Putin’s office.
But Trump’s thoughts on the dispute between Tokyo and Moscow remain unknown.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida traveled to St. Petersburg and Moscow for talks with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday and Saturday in a last-ditch effort to win the Kremlin’s support for making progress on the issue.
The Russian side showed interest in advancing economic cooperation but gave no new sign of cooperating with Japan’s call to settle the long-standing territorial row and sign a peace treaty.
For Russia, there is little incentive to give way to Japan, especially in light of rising domestic nationalism and the military importance of the island chain, which borders the Sea of Okhotsk, a key area of operations for Russian nuclear submarines, and the Pacific Ocean, analysts said.
The Soviet Union seized Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group after Japan’s surrender in WWII, saying it was in line with an agreement reached with the United States and Britain in Yalta in February 1945.
Abe has acknowledged that moving forward on a peace treaty will “not be easy” after meeting Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Lima on Nov. 19.
“Making a big step is not easy but I hope to steadily move forward step by step,” Abe told reporters.
Putin, meanwhile, referred to the islands during a news conference on Nov. 21 in which he said: “We believe that now they are part of Russia’s sovereign territory.”
He said that the basis for an agreement would be “greater mutual trust, and trust can be strengthened through broader cooperation,” suggesting that the two countries conduct joint economic activities on the disputed islands.
Japan is reluctant, however, to agree to the proposal as doing so while Russia controls the islands could be seen as Tokyo recognizing Russia’s sovereignty over them. Tokyo has said it will not rule out the idea so long as Japan’s legal stance on the islands’ ownership is not diminished.
A senior Japanese diplomat tried to lower expectations for a breakthrough at the Abe-Putin summit.
“When something new is launched it goes smoothly at the outset. But as the negotiations move, issues and difficulties arise,” the official said after the leaders’ talks in Lima.
“As the (Yamaguchi) summit gets closer and closer, the Japanese side has become more and more alarmed that they have built up so much expectation for the meeting when actually nothing is going to happen,” Brown said.
“I think (the Abe-Putin meeting) in Lima was the final realization from the Japanese leadership that Russia has not moved.”
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