Tokyo is taking a wait-and-see approach in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise proposal last week that the two countries conclude a post-World War II peace treaty without preconditions by the end of this year.
The government has told the Russian side through back channels that it cannot accept the proposal, which seemingly contradicts the 1993 Tokyo declaration between the two countries, according to government sources. In that bilateral statement, Japan and Russia confirmed that they would sign a peace treaty that formally ends their wartime hostilities after settling the issue of sovereignty over four Russian-held northwestern Pacific islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan.
“There’s no point in concluding a peace treaty without demarcating the border line,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
Tokyo plans to wait for Putin’s next move while taking his latest proposal as an informal offer, the sources said, suggesting that officially criticizing the overture could affect the face-to-face relationship that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has built with the Russian leader.
Putin abruptly made the proposal during an open session, also attended by Abe, of the annual Eastern Economic Forum meeting in the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok on Sept. 12.
Following the session Abe and Putin held talks again, two days after their previous meeting. They were accompanied only by interpreters for what was their 22nd bilateral meeting.
Within the central government there is a prevailing view that the Putin proposal was motivated by the leader’s frustration with what he sees as inadequate Japanese investment in the Far East region.
Tokyo aims to achieve a breakthrough on the territorial issue by realizing proposed joint economic activities on the disputed islands off Hokkaido.
Abe, however, admitted during an open debate in Tokyo on Friday that the joint initiative is not going smoothly due to a stalemate in talks on a special legal framework that would not undermine the two nations’ positions on the islands.
In the debate session, hosted by the Japan National Press Club, Abe did not conceal his irritation at a journalist’s question about whether the two leaders do not share a common approach to resolving the territorial issue.
“I think many experts have quite different views from yours,” Abe told the journalist.
The prime minister is believed to be nervous about criticism from both ruling and opposition lawmakers over his lack of an immediate response to the Putin offer in Vladivostok.
During the Tokyo debate, Abe reiterated his administration’s stance that a peace treaty should be concluded with Russia after the territory row is settled. But at the same time, he gave consideration to Putin, saying that the president’s proposal “undeniably reflected his resolve that a peace treaty is necessary.”
Calling the Putin proposal a “curveball,” Abe said Monday on television: “We shouldn’t fear it, but we need to capture and straighten it.”
On the same TV program, Shigeru Ishiba, Abe’s sole contender in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership election to be held on Thursday, argued that the Putin offer took the territorial negotiations back to the drawing board.
The 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration stipulated that the Habomais and Shikotan, two of the four islands, be handed over to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty.
But Ishiba, the former secretary-general of the LDP, warned, “We may be unable to get back the two or even any of the four.”