Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting in Singapore last week, reportedly agreed to expedite the stalled negotiations for a World War II peace treaty based on the 1956 joint declaration by Japan and the Soviet Union. Tokyo and Moscow have not been able to sign a formal peace treaty in the more than seven decades since the war due to the long-standing dispute over the group of islands off Hokkaido that were seized by Soviet forces in 1945. Since the declaration says Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets would be handed over to Japan once a peace treaty is signed — but makes no mention of the much larger two islands in dispute, Kunashiri and Etorofu — the Abe-Putin meeting gave way to speculation that the government may be changing its position of settling the dispute over all the islands before concluding the peace treaty.

Abe’s intentions behind the move have not been made clear, but speaking to reporters after the talks he said he shared with Putin “a strong will to put an end” to the lack of a peace treaty under their leadership, indicating once again that he hopes to settle the matter while he is in office, which could be as long as September 2021 when his tenure as president of the Liberal Democratic Party will run out.

Even 62 years after the 1956 joint declaration restored diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Moscow, efforts to solve the territorial row over Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and Habomai have not made much substantive progress, although various proposals have been made and approaches tried over the years. It seems clear that a bold political decision is needed to resolve the matter.

In that sense, the current solid political leadership in both Tokyo and Moscow — with Abe continuing to hold a dominant grip on power at home and on the way to becoming the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in history — provides a rare chance for moving the talks over the dispute forward.

Abe and Putin have met more than 20 times as the two countries’ leaders and are believed to have built up a close personal rapport. But even as Abe pursued a “new approach” of promoting economic cooperation between the two countries, including joint economic projects on the disputed islands, to improve the conditions for discussing the territorial row, bilateral talks on sovereignty over the islands have effectively made no progress.

In a regional economic forum held in Vladivostok in September — and attended by Abe among other regional leaders — Putin made an abrupt proposal that Japan and Russia conclude a peace treaty by the end of the year without any preconditions — which was taken by many in Japan as unacceptable because that would mean effectively shelving the dispute over the four islands. The meeting in Singapore on Wednesday was their first encounter since Putin’s remarks in Vladivostok, and Abe reportedly proposed to Putin that the two governments expedite the peace treaty talks on the foundation of the 1956 declaration.

Putin has recognized that the declaration remains valid today as the sole document that has been approved by the parliaments of both countries. Abe’s proposal is believed to have been intended to nudge Moscow into the peace treaty talks by moving closer to its position. It will be a pragmatic step forward if it indeed results in breaking the stalemate over the territorial row.

After meeting Putin again in Argentina on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit at the end of this month, Abe plans to visit Russia as early as late January to accelerate the talks.

Of course, the prospect for resolving the dispute will remain far from clear even if they expedite the talks. Japan and Russia are believed to have different goals in discussing the territorial row on the basis of the 1956 declaration. While Tokyo seeks to first get Shikotan and Habomai back and leave the fate of Kunashiri and Etorofu for future negotiations, Moscow is expected to insist on ending the territorial row for good by handing over the smaller islands.

The idea of Japan first getting Shikotan and Habomai returned was proposed by Tokyo in the past, when Putin and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori confirmed the validity of the 1956 declaration in 2001. But that did not result in moves toward settling the dispute, and Japan has since maintained the position of affirming sovereignty over all the disputed islands.

Even as interpretations fly over Abe’s overture, the government insists that its position in seeking to resolve the territorial row remains unchanged. In diplomatic talks, the specifics of the negotiations will of course need to be kept under wraps. But if the Abe administration is changing its basic position on dealing with the dispute with Russia, it should publicly explain and build a solid domestic consensus over its position.

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