Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday he plans to visit Russia early next year to continue negotiations on the long-running territorial dispute over the four Japan-claimed islands off Hokkaido.
“You can’t conclude a peace treaty only with one or two (summit) meetings. It’s not such an easy task,” Abe said in a speech to business leaders at a Tokyo hotel. “I’d like to accelerate moves toward improvement of the relationship” with Russia.
Abe also defended the outcome of his high-profile meetings with President Vladimir Putin last week.
He has been criticized by media outlets for winning no concessions in the territorial issue while only pledging to promote economic cooperation with Russia.
But in his speech Tuesday, Abe argued that Japan’s case for sovereignty of the islands has failed to gain any traction over the past seven decades, necessitating a “new approach” meant to promote economic cooperation first to build up bilateral trust with Moscow.
Abe said Japan’s traditional approach has failed to move the territorial row “even by 1 millimeter” toward a resolution.
“We need to take an approach looking straight at reality,” he said.
Abe’s “new approach” presumably means setting aside the territorial debate for now and putting the priority on strengthening economic ties, aiming to use that as a base for building mutual trust and easing nationalistic concerns in both countries.
“In Japan there are concerns that (Russia) may only capitalize on economic cooperation and intentionally leave the peace treaty issue unattended,” he said.
“Russia, too, has suspected that economic issues may not be promoted even if they make some progress in the territorial issue. Japan and Russia have been trapped in mutual distrust.”
Over the past seven decades, Japan and Russia have failed to conclude a peace treaty to technically end World War II, mainly due to the dispute over the islands known as the Northern Territories in Japan and Southern Kurils in Russia.
Abe said maintaining Tokyo’s traditional approach would fail to alter the status quo and instead only strengthen Russia’s effective control of the islands.
“If you take a tough stance by saying we would not do anything unless the four islands are returned, it may draw praise from the public,” Abe said. “But an approach like that won’t move the status quo even by 1 millimeter.”
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