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Japan, Russia make scant progress in latest isles talks

Japan and Russia held a round of vice ministerial-level talks Tuesday on a long-standing territorial row over a group of islands, exploring talking points for further dialogue but making little tangible progress.


The officials did agree to hold a meeting of a lower-level working group ahead of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s planned visit to Russia in May for talks with President Vladimir Putin.


“We didn’t think we could reach a specific agreement this time in the first place, but we’re now at the stage where we will reflect on today’s dialogue in specific discussions at the director level,” Japanese Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Mori told reporters after the talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov.


Abe and Putin agreed in December 2016 to begin discussing joint economic activities on the chain of islands north of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island.


Japan hopes the joint projects could lead to an eventual settlement over the isles. But both sides have agreed the activities can only take place under a special system that compromises neither country’s legal position on their sovereignty, and the details of the system are still under discussion.


Mori said he and Morgulov exchanged views on the special system and discussed ways to bring to fruition the five already agreed on project categories, including aquaculture and tourism development.


Called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. The row over their sovereignty has kept Japan and Russia from signing a postwar peace treaty.


Abe said after meeting Putin in November that they had agreed to speed up preparations “toward next spring” to implement the projects in the five categories.


But negotiations appear to have been further complicated by defense developments on both sides.


Japan raised concern earlier this month over Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s authorization for military use of a civilian airport on the island of Etorofu, called Iturup by Russia.


Russia, meanwhile, has sounded caution over Japan’s planned expansion of its missile defense system. The deployment of the U.S.-made Aegis Ashore system is aimed at dealing with the threat from North Korea, but Moscow worries it could be used by the United States in an attack capacity.


In an apparent reference to the missile system issue, Morgulov said at the outset of Tuesday’s talks that Japan and Russia “can reach a solution…if we are able to protect the negotiation process from political influence.”


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