Economy to be the focus at Japan-Russia summit

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) arrives in Moscow today to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) arrives in Moscow today to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.PHOTOS: AFP

Abe expected to pitch joint field research projects with Moscow in 4 disputed islands

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Moscow today for his second summit in four months with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with joint economic projects expected to top the agenda again.

Japan is keen to pitch joint "field research projects" with Russia on four disputed islands north of Hokkaido, in areas such as fisheries, tourism and medical services.

The projects could begin as early as next month if Moscow gives the green light. The islands were seized by Russia in the final days of World War II, thus prompting 20,000 Japanese nationals to flee. They are home to about 17,000 Russians today.

The territorial dispute has prevented the two nations from signing a post-war peace treaty.

Analysts believe Mr Abe's promises of investments are an attempt to soften Mr Putin's position on the disputed islands.

Japan is expected to ink as many as 20 agreements during the two-day summit - on top of the 80 pacts that were signed when they last met in Tokyo last December.

The new deals include projects in areas such as urban development, energy and pharmaceuticals.

As part of the new deals, Japan will help to develop subway infrastructure in Voronezh - a city to the south of Moscow - and introduce a traffic signals system designed to ease the notorious gridlock in the capital.

The state-backed Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation will also enter into a deal worth billions of yen to develop crude oil and gas with a major Russia firm.

Dr James Brown, a Russia expert at Temple University in Tokyo, said Mr Abe is "too optimistic" about getting back the islands.

He said: "The two larger islands are impossible for Japan to get but Mr Abe believes Russia is not in such a strong position with their relatively fragile economy and, as such, they could do with Japanese economic assistance. He is hoping that his persistence will eventually pay off."

Both countries are embroiled in a dispute over four islands that Russia calls the Southern Kurils and Japan calls the Northern Territories. In a 1956 declaration, Moscow said it will offer Japan the two smaller islands in exchange for the signing of a peace treaty, but this was opposed by the United States.

Mr Putin has since said Russia "does not trade territories", while Mr Abe also wants the bigger and more resource-rich islands. The two leaders in December agreed to establish a special economic regime such that their joint economic activities will not undermine each other's legal position on sovereignty.

But one major stumbling block, Dr Brown said, is Moscow's insistence that all joint economic projects on the islands be subject to Russian law. Still, he said: "Even without any particularly concrete results, any positive outcome will give the impression that ties are heading in the right direction, and show people that the efforts are not completely in vain."

One such outcome could be Moscow agreeing to let former Japanese inhabitants of the disputed islands travel to the islands via chartered planes.

The latest summit will be Mr Abe's 17th meeting with Mr Putin.

Hosei University Graduate School of Politics professor Nobuo Shimotomai said: "At this time, they are not going to talk about the sovereignty issue per se, but this is actually a course towards the final solution (on the island dispute)."

In doing so, Dr Shimotomai said, Mr Abe will maintain a razor-sharp focus on economic ties, even as the Kremlin said earlier this week that the talks will focus on "the state and prospects for development of Russo-Japanese cooperation in the political, trade and economic and humanitarian spheres".

Mr Abe has, for years, actively sought closer ties with Mr Putin, much to the chagrin of Washington, Tokyo's long-time ally. This places Japan in an awkward position, and Dr Brown said he expects "a little bit of toning down in the chumminess between Mr Abe and Mr Putin".

Both leaders' differing stance on a US military strike on Syria is also likely to cast a pall on the meeting.

Tokyo has voiced its support for the US strike.

Mr Abe will leave Moscow for London tomorrow for talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2017, with the headline 'Japan-Russia summit likely to focus on economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe