Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrown fresh light on the political, security and other factors complicating efforts to solve the two countries’ decades-long territorial dispute.
The two leaders, meeting in Japan, agreed on joint economic activities on disputed islets controlled by Russia off Hokkaido, saying it would be the first step toward building a relationship of trust and resolving the territorial spat.
For Abe, regaining ownership of the islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — is part of his efforts to tackle what he sees as unresolved issues stemming from World War II, which also include revising the U.S.-written postwar Constitution. As well as hoping to accommodate former islanders’ desire to return home, he sees a solution to the dispute, like other existing territorial issues with China and South Korea, as a matter of national interest, analysts say.
For Putin, however, conceding ownership of the territories is a risk he would not want to run before the presidential election in 2018. Giving up control of any of the islands would not make sense unless it brings politically acceptable gains in return, they say.
Past Japanese administrations solely focused on how to regain the islands, but failed repeatedly to find common ground with Moscow, which argues that the Soviet Union legitimately occupied them in the closing days of the war in 1945.
Abe made a different approach to advancing the territorial talks by joining hands on the economic front, with the two leaders agreeing that building a relationship of trust through stronger economic ties is essential to paving the way for settling the territorial issue and concluding a peace treaty.
Some analysts say, however, that regardless of progress in economic cooperation, Japan’s ties with the United States as its closest ally continue to pose a concern for Russia unless Tokyo breaks with its conventional mindset and discusses the island dispute within a broader perspective.
“Given the special relations between Japan and the United States and their commitments under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, we do not know how these relations will evolve,” Putin said of Japan-Russia ties in a news conference in Tokyo.
“When we talk about being flexible (on the territorial issue), we want our Japanese colleagues and friends to take into account all these subtle issues and concerns we have,” Putin told the news conference.
Concerns have grown in Washington that Japan’s closer ties with Russia may disrupt the coordination between the Group of Seven and European countries to exert pressure on Russia to act constructively over the respective Ukrainian and Syrian issues, analysts say.
Even before Abe and Putin met this month, there were few expectations that their summit would yield a breakthrough on the islands issue at a time when Putin is in no hurry to settle the decades-old row before U.S. president-elect Donald Trump takes office.
Under Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which allows the U.S. military to be stationed in Japanese-administered territories, the return of the islands could lead to the United States deploying troops there.
“If Japan and Russia were to really talk about return of the islands to Japan, Tokyo needs to have serious security talks with the United States, although that is difficult for now with uncertainties surrounding the incoming U.S. administration led by Donald Trump,” said Shinji Hyodo, director of the Regional Studies Department at the National Institute for Defense Studies.
There were views before the summit that Abe and Putin could strike a deal based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Union Joint Declaration, which states that Russia will hand over Shikotan and the Habomais — 7 percent of the total landmass of the disputed isles — after signing a postwar peace treaty.
Haruki Wada, emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo, says seeking the return of Shikotan and the Habomais and recognizing Russia’s sovereignty over the other two islands is the only solution to settling the dispute.
“Mr. Abe must have thought about it, but it seems to me that he could not make up his mind for fear of losing public support,” Wada said.
Joint economic activities on the four islands “could end up being ostensible cooperation on paper and eventually come to a deadlock,” Wada said, adding Tokyo missed an opportunity to make a deal and “has been forced into a corner.”
This is the first in a three-part series on Japan-Russia relations.
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