President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed a territorial dispute that has prevented them signing a peace treaty to end World War II during a rare bilateral visit by a Group of Seven leader to Russia.
Abe suggested a new approach to the dispute over four islands that the Soviet Union occupied in the closing days of the war and Putin basically agreed, the Kyodo news service reported, citing the premier following the talks in Russia’s Sochi on Friday. The fact Japan is seeking to maintain relations with Russia, despite U.S. pressure, will allow the two sides to tackle “all the different problems,” Putin said last month.
“They confirmed a willingness to develop political dialogue very, very intensively, including at the highest level,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after the meeting.
Not everyone was happy about the three-hour long talks between Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe which took place in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday.
Kuril islands dispute. While for Abe the meeting was diplomatically significant — a chance to discuss the disputed Kuril islands face-to-face with Putin — for the White House, it was an unwelcome fissure in the united front Washington has instructed its allies to construct against Moscow. It was so unwelcome, in fact, that Barack Obama had reportedly asked Abe personally not to go to Sochi at all.
Island diplomacy The long-running dispute between Russia and Japan over ownership of the Kuril island chain meant that the two countries never signed a peace treaty after World War II. Russia claims ownership of the strategically important territory under the 1945 Yalta accord and argues that the islands — which Russia refers to as the Southern Kurils and Japan knows as the Northern Territories — were handed over to the Soviet Union with Washington’s blessing. Japan disputes this.
The Kremlin kept expectations low for the meeting between the two leaders in Sochi. Russia has plans to build up its military assets on the islands and has singled the territory out for significant socio-economic development. Frankly, no one expects that Putin will suddenly decide to give the islands up — not even Abe.
Nonetheless, Abe believes that if anything will help soften Russia’s stance over the dispute, it will be increased economic and technological cooperation between Moscow and Tokyo, which could help revitalize the Russian Far East. Most observers say, however, that despite Russia’s economic woes, Abe’s hand is weak.
Displeasing Washington But, let the reader not be fooled into believing that the Russia-Japan relationship is to be controlled only by Moscow and Tokyo. The US, naturally, also wants its say. The problem for Japan — a major US ally — is that the diplomacy surrounding the islands dispute is so important, that Tokyo has had to show a rare willingness to go against Washington.
Abe knows that to curry favor with Putin, he must display that he, not the White House, is in control of Japan’s foreign policy. This has been difficult, given the obvious pressure from the US, but it seems to be a risk that Abe is willing to take — even given the awkward timing of the meeting just ahead of a G7 summit in Japan later this month. His refusal to sour his relationship with Putin, has obviously put yet another spanner in the works where US efforts to ‘isolate’ Moscow are concerned.
After rejecting Obama’s request not to meet with Putin, the level of pressure from the US was revealed when Abe sent a top security official to Washington to explain why the meeting in Sochi must go ahead. It remains baffling that Tokyo should feel obliged to provide such a courtesy.
Positive signs? Abe’s wording after the conclusion of his meeting with Putin was interesting. Without much elaboration, he said that the two leaders had agreed on a new approach to resolving the dispute over the Kuril islands. He noted that the peace treaty issue would be resolved “by ourselves” and that Japan would pursue a “future-oriented” relationship with Russia “free of any past ideas”. This kind of talk is not exactly music to Washington’s ears, to say the least. Abe is also believed to have presented Putin with an eight-point plan to strengthen their countries’ ties. No date has been set for Putin’s visit to Japan, but the Japanese prime minister has been invited back to Russia for the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September.
Abe is not stupid. Even if he gets nowhere on the Kurils issue, he knows that balancing the Russia-China relationship is beneficial regardless. Signs so far indicate he is willing to risk displeasing the US in Japan’s better interests.
Diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Moscow have remained strained due to a decade old dispute over a group of islands claimed by both. Both governments are yet to sign a peace treaty to end World War II after the erstwhile Soviets had seized four islands (Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan, and the Habomai islets group) off Hokkaido, which is part of what Tokyo identifies as the Northern Territories and Moscow, as the Southern Kurils.
The current phase of Russo-Japanese relations can be traced to April 2013, when Abe became the first Japanese leader in a decade to make an official visit to Russia in a bid to resolve the territorial differences and expand energy ties. This was a special effort by Tokyo to open a new chapter in its relations with Moscow.
However, shortly after Abe visited Sochi in February 2014 for Winter Olympics, bilateral relations grew strained. Japan went on to join the US and the EU in imposing sanctions on Russia in order to penalise it for annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Consequently, Russian president’s Tokyo visit that was scheduled for later that year, was put off.
There are differing perceptions of Abe’s latest visit to Russia. The US and EU view it as a breakthrough in Kremlin’s efforts towards ending the two years of isolation Russia faced due to the Ukraine issue. Russia on the other hand attributes Abe’s visit to the China factor and the current situation in East Asia that including concerns over the North Korean nuclear missile programme and the East China Sea dispute.
The visit is also being seen as a failure of US President Barack Obama’s policy in trying to isolate Russia over the Ukraine issue. In February 2016, Obama had asked Abe to postpone his Russia visit until after the G7 summit – one which Russia is excluded from, and Obama would be attending – that is scheduled to be held in Japan’s Ise-Shima region on 26-27 May. A spokesperson of the US Department of State had recently stated that Washington wants a “continued unity” of its partners in dealing with Russia.
The significance of this engagement lies in the promise that strong Russia-Japan relations will better enable both countries to tackle their economic and geopolitical challenges. So far, both countries have only restricted and decreased their respective options and capacities by not cooperating and collaborating.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Russia will take place before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tokyo, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said on Friday. "We expect Mr Abe to visit us first," Morgulov said answering a question on possible dates of Putin’s visit to Japan.
The leaders of Russia and Japan met in Sochi at the beginning of May. Soon after the meeting, Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov said that Putin may visit Tokyo by the end of 2016.
On June 22 another round of consultations was held in Tokyo on issues of peace treaty between Russia and Japan. Among participants in talks were Japanese government's envoy for relations with Russia Tikahito Harada and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov. The new round of talks on peace treaty may take place before the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok scheduled for September 2-3.
Two months ago, the Defense Ministry along with the Russian Geographical Society sent a research expedition to Matua Island.
On May 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan once again brought up the issue of the Northern Territories, the four islands in the Kuril chain, disputed by Tokyo. As a result the talks, Abe said that Tokyo offered a "new approach" on the issue.
The construction of a new naval base is not linked to the Kuril issue because Matua is not one of the islands claimed by Japan, Mikhail Alexandrov, a military analyst the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told Svobodnaya Pressa.
However, in the future the base will be of military and strategic importance. An airfield will be constructed at the base. Theoretically, it could be used for Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers capable to carry Kh-101 long-range cruise missiles. Thus, Russian long-range bombers will be capable of accomplishing tasks of the strategic aviation.
The base will also play an important role in deployment of Russian missile-carrying nuclear submarines, the analyst pointed out. Aircraft deployed to the base will be capable to track US submarines in the region.
Alexandrov also said that a new Russian base in the Kuril chain is unlikely to fuel tensions between Moscow and Tokyo.