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Abe continues balancing act with Putin as he chases peace treaty, disputed isles at Moscow summit

by Satoshi Iizuka

Kyodo

During a summit at the Kremlin on Saturday afternoon, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed they will make efforts to conclude a postwar peace treaty and accelerate bilateral economic cooperation.

However, the outcome of the latest talks between the Japanese and Russian leaders reinforced the view that Tokyo finds itself trapped in a constant balancing act in its dealings with Moscow, which is facing a growing feud with the West.

The 21st face-to-face meeting between Abe and Putin came at a time when ties between the United States, Japan’s key ally, and Russia have deteriorated due partly to multiple international conflicts.

During their talks, Abe and Putin agreed on new joint business projects but revealed no visible progress on the territorial dispute dividing the two countries.

“What is important is to seek a solution (to the peace treaty issue) that meets (the) national interests of both sides and is mutually acceptable,” Putin said at a news conference after their talks.

He also urged patience in efforts to resolve the long-standing isle dispute, which has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty to officially end the war.

“It is important to patiently continue the search for a solution,” Putin said.

Japanese officials said the leaders discussed the Russian-held, Japanese-claimed isles, but their joint news conference and statement did little to ease skepticism about whether Tokyo’s economic incentives will pay off and eventually lead Moscow to consider giving the islands, seized in the closing days of World War II, back to Japan.

There was no sign that Putin, who met with Abe for the first time since being re-elected president in March, has changed his stance on the isles, which lie off Hokkaido.

As part of humanitarian measures, Abe and Putin agreed to let former Japanese residents of the islands travel to them this year to visit the graves of their ancestors. The two leaders also confirmed how far their eight-point economic cooperation package, which Abe proposed two years ago, has advanced.

But when it comes to the disputed islands, it is still unclear whether the two countries will be able to come up with a “special framework” for the planned joint economic activities that does not compromise either side’s legal position on the islands’ sovereignty.

Eager to sign a peace treaty and make a breakthrough on the island spat, Abe has been trying to maintain a delicate balance between Japan’s Group of Seven peers and Russia, which is locked in a confrontation with them, but to no avail.

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 resulted in sanctions by the West and Japan sided with them, but Abe was careful about expressing Japan’s position on U.S.-led airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in April, saying only that he supported the resolve not to permit the use of chemical weapons.

The airstrikes targeted sites associated with the Middle Eastern country’s chemical weapons capabilities, sparking a rebuke from Russia, which has been backing Assad’s government in Syria’s civil war.

“It is unimaginable that Russia would take an attitude of compromise over the territorial issue amid such an international situation,” said Itsuro Nakamura, a professor of Russian politics at the University of Tsukuba.

Analysts say the existence of the Japan-U.S. alliance is a reason for Moscow to keep the disputed islands, given the theoretical possibility that Russia would face a new U.S. military presence along its Far Eastern border if Japan regains control.

Russia conducted military drills on the islands in February and April and has expressed frustration over Japan’s planned installation of a U.S. land-based missile defense system called Aegis Ashore.

Aiming to promote the already agreed upon eight-point economic cooperation package, Japan is planning joint economic activities in five areas on the islets, but analysts say Russia apparently intends to attract as much investment as possible from Japan before agreeing on a peace treaty, which would not necessarily guarantee their return.

Yoko Hirose, an international politics professor at Keio University, says the territorial spat will not be resolved anytime soon, casting doubt on the prospects for the economic activities.

Hirose said her interviews with officials from Japanese firms involved in some of the projects suggest the planned activities would not necessarily be productive and would be accompanied by “pain” before they become reasonably profitable.

But she said Japanese economic cooperation is “by no means meaningless” as it could lead to “promoting confidence-building” between the two countries in the long run.

Russia needs Japan’s technology and funds in developing the country’s Far East region at a time when it is more focused on developing Crimea, said Hirose.

“It is important for Japan to make Russia feel it can no longer develop the Far East without Japan.”

Information from Bloomberg added.