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In a meeting in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin, Prime Minister Taro Aso and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to accelerate efforts to solve the sovereignty dispute over four islands off Hokkaido by pursuing a “creative and unconventional approach.” They also agreed that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will visit Japan in May. It is hoped that the Aso-Medvedev meeting will help accelerate progress in the territorial talks. But Tokyo should be cautious about Russia’s modus operandi of trying to get as much economic cooperation as possible from Japan while putting off the territorial talks.

The meeting took place ahead of a ceremony the same day to mark the start of Russia’s first production plant for Japan-bound liquefied natural gas, part of the Sakhalin-2 oil and natural gas development project in which Japanese firms are taking part. It would ensure about 7 percent of Japan’s LNG imports.

Tense ties with Europe, the rise of China and the battering of the Russian economy by the global recession and steep falls in oil prices have apparently made Moscow turn its eyes toward Japan, from which it can expect much-needed economic and technological cooperation. Mr. Medvedev has made energy development and infrastructure construction in Siberia and the Russian Far East priority policies.

Tokyo hopes that progress in economic cooperation and acceleration in the territorial talks will go together. But the content of the “creative and unconventional approach,” which was proposed by the Russian side, is unclear. Japan should carefully examine this approach and continue to remind Russia that without a solution to the territorial dispute, full-scale Japanese investment in and economic cooperation with Russia are impossible.

In January, Russia caused stoppage of the delivery of Japanese humanitarian aid to the disputed islands and threatened to wreck visa-free exchanges between Japanese citizens and Russian residents of the islands by requiring disembarkation cards for Japanese to enter there. Whether Russia will offer a satisfactory solution to this issue will serve as the first test of Russia’s intentions to deepen bilateral ties.

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