There is a fair chance that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next visit to Japan will finally take place late this year. It will be his first trip to Japan as president in 11 years. His visit is a good opportunity to advance bilateral talks on the long-running territorial dispute over the four Russian-held islands known in Japan as the Northern Territories, located off northeastern Hokkaido.
When Putin met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Russian seaport city of Vladivostok on Sept. 2, they agreed to hold a summit in Japan’s western prefecture of Yamaguchi, Abe’s political base, on Dec. 15. Putin’s planned visit is likely to be an official one, which has been long overdue, partly due to the Ukraine crisis.
At a meeting in the southern Russian resort of Sochi in May, the two leaders agreed to accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty by resolving the territorial dispute through “an approach based on new ways of thinking.” At the latest talks in Vladivostok, as well, they reportedly had an in-depth discussion. “Now I can see the path toward advancing detailed negotiations,” Abe said after the meeting.
Japan and Russia have already agreed to look for a solution to the Northern Territories issue that will be acceptable to both sides. Although there is still a major gap between their positions, the two leaders also plan to meet on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru in November. Their governments have been holding working-level negotiations frequently in recent months, with a view to clinching a peace treaty.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that the two leaders would disclose any results achieved so far in the peace treaty negotiations during Putin’s visit to Japan at the end of the year. It is to be hoped that the two sides will push ahead with the territorial talks, with sights set on the Yamaguchi summit, which is likely to be the climax of recent developments in Russo-Japanese diplomatic relations.
In a public opinion survey conducted by the Nikkei group recently, some 54% of Japanese people polled supported the negotiations with Russia over the four islands, even if only some of them were to be returned (while 36% supported talks only if all four islands were regained). In view of the trend among the Japanese public toward seeking such a realistic solution, we hope Abe will tenaciously continue dialogue with the Russian president and lay out a path toward making progress on the territorial issue.
Immediately before the summit talks in Vladivostok, Abe assigned the additional ministerial portfolio of economic cooperation with Russia to the minister of economy, trade and industry, Hiroshige Seko. Abe is positive toward pushing ahead with cooperation with Russia in terms of the economy and national security. Some Japanese are critical toward his posture, which they view as making cooperation a priority over winning territorial concessions from Russia. But fostering mutual trust is vital in order to make progress with talks on the territorial issue.
Promoting cooperation with Russia, a resource-rich powerhouse, in energy development will help Japan, now highly reliant on Middle Eastern oil producers, expand its list of energy suppliers. Given the unstable situation in Northeast Asia, due in part to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs and China’s growing military assertiveness, it makes good sense for Japan to seek cooperation with Russia on security. Having a certain degree of diplomatic and other connections with Russia is also necessary in order to warn Russia against any behavior jolting the international order.
Such cooperation, serving Japan’s national interests, needs to be pushed forward irrespective of how the territorial talks develop.