In meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Tokyo on Tuesday, Prime Minister Taro Aso apparently wanted to achieve some progress in the Northern Territories issue. But Mr. Putin apparently gave priority to strengthening bilateral economic ties. Thus the two leaders mostly talked past each other. Mr. Aso only managed to have the Russian side agree to continue efforts to solve the territorial dispute over the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

The Tokyo meeting followed a February meeting in Sakhalin between Mr. Aso and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which the two agreed to take a “new, creative approach” to solve the territorial row. Mr. Aso, who will meet with the president again in July during the Group of Eight summit, wanted to know whether Mr. Putin is ready to take the same approach.

Mr. Putin said to Mr. Aso that “no matter how difficult problems exit, they can be solved if they are problems between friends.” He also said Russia wants to remove the “negative legacy” as Japan does. Asked by a reporter about a proposal by a Japanese official for returning “3.5” of the four islands, he said every option will be discussed in the July meeting. But he refrained from discussing any specific steps to solve the territorial disputes. The two leaders reached a rather general agreement toward the eventual solution of the territorial issue. They agreed to accelerate the work to try to find “methods” acceptable to both sides.

In the economic and other fields, however, Mr. Aso and Mr. Putin produced agreements that have substance. The nuclear agreement envisages Japan providing Russia with technology to build nuclear power in exchange for Japan’s access to Russia’s uranium resource and enrichment capabilities. The two leaders also produced a mutual legal assistance treaty, a customs mutual assistance agreement, and a memorandum to cooperate in preventing the export of illegal fishery catches.

It is imperative that Japan work out a strategy to utilize expanded bilateral cooperation in various fields including economics, energy, and technological innovation as leverage toward deepening mutual trust and solving the territorial disputes.

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