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Putin maintains staunch stance on Japan-Russia island row

LIMA, Nov. 21, Kyodo — Russian President Vladimir Putin showed no sign Sunday of softening his position on bilateral negotiations over concluding a peace treaty with Japan, while also broaching a proposed joint economic project on disputed islands already rejected by Tokyo.


Speaking at a press conference in Lima, Putin said concluding a peace treaty with Japan that has been delayed for decades over a territorial row is “not an easy path.”


Putin said he is “ready for dialogue” toward resolving the issue of sovereignty over the Russia-held islands off Hokkaido which Japan claims and “there are various options” for settling the row.


Putin said he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had discussed Russia’s proposal for joint economic activities on the contentious islands and expressed his desire to make that happen during their talks on Saturday.


Tokyo and Moscow have been in talks ahead of Putin’s visit to Japan next month on implementing a bilateral eight-point package aimed at helping boost the Russian economy overall.


But Japan has rejected the proposal for possible join economic projects on the Northern Territories as Japan’s involvement in one while Russia controls the region would mean Tokyo recognizes Russia’s sovereignty there.


“There has been no change to Japan’s basic position that we will resolve the issue of the return of the four islands and (then) conclude the peace treaty,” top Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday, in reaction to Putin’s remarks.


For Japan, which has long held that it will pursue the peace treaty after first securing Russia’s recognition of Japanese sovereignty over the contentious chain of islands, Putin’s remark indicates that a resolution to the territorial issue is still a far-off prospect.


The Russian leader’s stance is sure to throw cold water on Japanese expectations that an Abe-Putin summit scheduled in Japan next month will yield a breakthrough on the island called the Southern Kurils by Moscow.


“The issue of the Northern Territories has gone unresolved for 70 years, so…it’s not an easy problem that can be resolved in one fell swoop,” Suga, chief Cabinet secretary, said Monday.


“I think (Abe and Putin) will negotiate from the standpoint of covering each issue that needs to be covered, one by one, to resolve the return of the four islands and conclude the peace treaty,” he said.


In connection with Putin’s account of possible joint economic activities, Suga indicated Monday that Japan will not participate in any project on the islands under Russian sovereignty.


A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said joint business activities on the islands are “not something we can easily abide,” due to the recognition of Russian sovereignty they would effectively entail.


Putin’s remarks so close to the summit, which Abe has framed as a chance to make progress on the territorial row, have left Tokyo scrambling to figure out his true intentions on the issue through diplomatic routes.


Putin made the comments at a press conference in the Peruvian capital on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit held over the weekend, having met Abe the day prior.


Abe told Putin on Saturday he wants to send Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to Russia ahead of the summit in Japan, likely in an attempt to close the gap between the governments’ respective understandings of the issue as much as possible in time for the talks.


The “four islands” refer to the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II in 1945.


Moscow has said it stands by a 1956 Japan-Soviet Union joint declaration, which states that Shikotan and Habomai will be returned to Japan upon the conclusion of the peace treaty.


But “it’s not written on what basis, under whose sovereignty (Shikotan and Habomai fall) and under what conditions they should be returned,” Putin said Sunday.


“The Southern Kurils are now territory under Russian sovereignty,” he said.


Putin’s visit to Japan next month is set to include talks on Dec. 15 in Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi in the country’s southwest. Abe told Putin Saturday that he also wants to hold a further meeting in Tokyo on Dec. 16.


The leaders had agreed to accelerate negotiations toward concluding the peace treaty when they met in May in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in southeastern Russia, where Abe presented to Putin an eight-point economic cooperation plan.


Since then, the Japanese government has primarily stressed the importance of the treaty negotiations, while remarks out of Moscow have centered on the potential for economic cooperation.

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