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Editorial: Japan, Russia should speed up talks on Northern Territories

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East on Sept. 10 for the 22nd summit between them.


The two leaders agreed on a road map for the implementation of joint economic activities in the disputed Northern Territories, which came under the occupation of then Soviet forces after Japan surrendered in World War II in August 1945, and are still under Russian control. Those activities cover five areas — cultivation of marine products including sea urchin, wind power generation, waste reduction, greenhouse strawberry farming and tourism. They also reached a consensus for Japan to dispatch a study team to the islands northeast of Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.


However, no progress was made on the core bilateral issue of the Northern Territories. Prime Minister Abe indicated his strong willingness again to try to sign a peace treaty with Russia. “I will continue to make utmost efforts with President Putin to bring an end to the issue,” Abe said, but Putin replied that the territorial issue cannot be resolved overnight in a bid to check the premier’s enthusiasm.


The two leaders agreed in December 2016 to this “new approach” of aiming for the signing of a peace treaty by cultivating mutual trust through joint economic activities while shelving the territorial talks. After a full year and nine months, they finally agreed on a road map. We cannot help but say progress on the issue is way too slow.


Moreover, during the latest summit, Abe and Putin did not even discuss the introduction of “a special system” of reconciling the sovereignty of Japan and Russia to conduct joint economic activities on those islands claimed by both countries. It appears that Russia is negative about such a system. Leaving this issue unaddressed will not bring any real moves forward.


Indeed, the international situation surrounding Tokyo and Moscow is not ideal. Japan’s ally, the United States, and Europe continue to have tensions with Russia, and Russia is wary of what it sees as the shadow of the U.S. behind Japan’s recent moves to introduce missile defense systems.


Meanwhile, Moscow is trying to get closer to China, whose relationship with the U.S. is getting ever more contentious. Russia invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to its Eastern Economic Forum and conducted a large-scale joint drill with Chinese forces in the Far East and elsewhere to highlight their cooperative ties.


Japan must continue confidence building measures with Russia, and make efforts to create a peaceful environment in Northeast Asia by attempting to lower tensions between Washington and Beijing. A strenuous diplomatic commitment is needed to launch full-fledged territorial negotiations with Russia.


Prime Minister Abe said in a speech in his bid to win a third consecutive term in the upcoming presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that he will try to bring a “final settlement to all Japan’s diplomatic goals during the postwar era” if he is re-elected LDP president for another three-year term, and emphasized that the issue of the Northern Territories will be resolved. But it is no longer good enough for Abe to just publicize his own diplomatic stance.

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