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Editorial: Optimism not warranted regarding progress on northern territories issue

In hosting a visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin in December, it is necessary to facilitate progress in addressing both the northern territories issue and economic cooperation in a well-balanced manner.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks with Putin in Peru, during which the prime minister confirmed that steady preparations would be made for the Russian president’s visit to our country. For half of the 70-minute top-level meeting, their interpreters were the only persons sitting in with them.


In commenting on peace treaty negotiations after the talks, Abe told reporters: “A process for resolving [the issue] is coming within sight.” The prime minister also emphasized that it would not be a very easy task to “make a big step forward” and said he would like to “go forward step by step.”


The return of the four northern islands has not been realized for more than 70 years since the end of World War II, and there still are persistent objections to their return in Russia. There is no cause for optimism regarding progress in negotiations over the territorial issue.


The prime minister is searching for clues regarding how to pave the way to solving the problem at a time when he is building a deepening relationship of trust with Putin, who has a strong power base. His strategy may be viewed as basically appropriate.


Prior to the meeting, the Japanese and Russian governments held vice-minister-level talks in Peru, during which they put together specific measures aimed at carrying out an eight-point economic cooperation plan. The measures included such schemes as Japan’s assistance for urban development in the Russian Far East.


The lineup of measures to be taken by Japan in promoting economic cooperation — a pump-priming overture aimed at achieving a breakthrough in the territorial issue — is nearing completion.


Watch U.S., Russia moves


As early as early next month, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to hold talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Russia, and they will coordinate matters related to Putin’s visit to Japan.


It is worrying to note that Putin’s true intentions with respect to territorial talks are still indiscernible.


In the latest talks, he pointed out that during the first half of this year, Japan-Russia trade decreased by 36 percent from a year earlier, partly due to the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and Europe. His remark can be regarded as an attempt to urge Japan to expand its economic cooperation.


If nothing is offered from Russia in addressing the territorial issue, however, it is unreasonable for that country to expect large-scale economic cooperation. Putin will be required to earnestly endeavor to make headway on the territorial issue if he seeks to achieve even greater results through his visit to Japan.


The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which is at odds with Russia over the Ukraine and Syrian situations, has expressed strong anxiety about a closer relationship being formed between Abe and Putin. The prime minister must explain to Obama again about the aim of improving Japan-Russia relations, thereby obtaining his understanding in this respect.


U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has displayed an eagerness to mend relations between the United States and Russia. How will this affect negotiations over the northern territories?


It has been predicted that the importance of making concessions to Japan, and driving a wedge into our nation’s ties with the United States and European countries, will lessen for Russia if that country can build favorable relations with the United States.


It is indispensable for Japan to keep close watch on the U.S. and Russian moves, too.

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