Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vehemently denied Friday his diplomacy to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia had ended in failure, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin’s abrupt call to conclude a peace treaty without preconditions only underlines his eagerness to sign what would, in principle, be a peace treaty to formally end the two nations’ wartime hostilities.

Abe made the remark during a policy debate session for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election, following Putin’s off-the-cuff proposal earlier this week that the two countries should first sign a peace treaty and thereafter keep discussing the territorial dispute over the four Russia-controlled islands off Hokkaido, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and Southern Kurils in Russia.

Putin’s proposal apparently ignored Tokyo’s long-held position that the decades-long dispute over the islands must be resolved before concluding a peace treaty and, thereby, normalizing bilateral ties.

“We need to infer from his words what ‘signal’ he was trying to send. … It is unmistakable that President Putin was conveying his enthusiasm to sign a peace treaty with us,” Abe said.

Abe also alleged that “many experts” would disagree with the criticism that has been levied against him.

After Putin’s remark — made during an economic forum in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East — domestic media outlets and some lawmakers in Japan have started criticizing Abe, saying he has yet to persuade Putin to accept Japan’s fundamental policy in the long-continuing territorial talks.

Abe has boasted personal rapport with Putin and has held a total of 22 summits with him to discuss territorial issues.

Abe has also said he will arrange meetings with Putin in November and December, saying those talks would all be particularly “important” in resolving the territorial dispute. He didn’t elaborate further.

In the debate with Ishiba at the Japan National Press Center in Tokyo, Abe also said that his radical monetary easing policy — a key feature of his Abenomics economic program — should not last forever. His comment was interpreted as signaling the possibility that he will shift his policy toward reining in the drastic monetary loosening over the next three years if he is re-elected LDP president and so retains the prime ministership. Abe is expected to beat Ishiba in the Sept. 20 presidential race, extending his term as LDP president by three more years.

“I don’t believe that we should continue monetary easing forever,” Abe said in response to a question from a reporter.

When asked if he was willing to “pave the way to end” an “abnormal and high-risk” situation caused by more than five years of his unprecedented monetary policy, Abe said: “I want to find my way to accomplish that by the end of my term.”

Abe declined to elaborate on specifics, however, saying that doing so would throw the market into disarray.

“I will let (Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko) Kuroda decide what to do with monetary easing,” he said.

Friday was the first time the two candidates had engaged in back-and-forth policy discussions since the contest for the Sept. 20 leadership election kicked off last week.

The campaigning got off to a rocky start, following a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in southern Hokkaido that killed 41 people.

In fact, a raft of natural calamities that hit recently — including torrential rain in western Japan in July, Typhoon Jebi and the Hokkaido quake earlier this month — has cast a renewed spotlight on the question of how to make the nation more disaster-resistant.

Ishiba advocates the establishment of what may be called the Disaster Prevention Ministry, which he said will be tasked with maintaining a continual readiness for natural disasters.

“It’s a matter of fact that we do our utmost to deal with a natural disaster after it happens. … But the important thing is to have a minister and staff solely dedicated to preparing for it on a daily basis,” Ishiba said.

Abe, meanwhile, stands by the position that no such central ministry is needed.

“When a disaster occurs, it’s something that requires cross-ministry cooperation. And it’s only the prime minister who can oversee each ministry and issue instructions in a timely manner. The disaster prevention minister, for example, can’t just go about ordering another minister to provide aid to affected areas,” Abe said.

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