Putin and Abe thrash out dispute over four islands

President Putin with Prime Minister Abe at the start of their summit in Nagato, Yamaguchi, yesterday. They ordered a start to talks on conditions for joint economic activity on the four islands.
President Putin with Prime Minister Abe at the start of their summit in Nagato, Yamaguchi, yesterday. They ordered a start to talks on conditions for joint economic activity on the four islands.PHOTO: REUTERS

They hold one-on-one discussions with only interpreters present

NAGATO • Russian President Vladi- mir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bunkered down for talks yesterday to try to resolve a territorial dispute that has prevented their countries from formally ending World War II hostilities.

Mr Abe is hosting Mr Putin at a hot-spring summit in his ancestral city of Nagato in the hope of achieving a breakthrough over four islands off Japan's northern coast seized by Soviet troops in 1945. The islands are known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan.

Both leaders yesterday ordered a start to consultations on conditions for joint economic activity on the four islands, Kremlin economic aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters. A statement on the order would be published today, he said, when pressed for more details.

Mr Abe would like to seal a deal as soon as possible because the islands' ageing Japanese former residents are dwindling in numbers.

Despite months of preparation, the outlook is not good, with both sides recently damping down expectations of major progress.

The two leaders shook hands before sitting down for their first meeting during the two days of talks, with Mr Abe welcoming Mr Putin to his home town.

"I think the summit today and tomorrow will bring a big contribution to the development of ties," Mr Putin said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the two leaders had dismissed aides and gone into "one-on-one discussions" to try to make progress on the issue of negotiating a peace treaty.

The Japanese media said the two leaders were meeting with only interpreters present.

Mr Lavrov also said that Mr Putin suggested the two countries re-establish meetings between their defence ministers. "The Prime Minister responded positively" to the suggestion, he said.

Mr Putin, a judoist who is making his first visit to Japan as President in 11 years, has said he wants to end the "anachronism" of the two countries not having a World War II peace treaty.

"But how to do this is a difficult question," he told the Japanese media before his arrival.

Underscoring the intense interest in the meeting in Japan, Mr Putin's arrival at the airport in the city of Ube, about three hours later than originally anticipated, was shown live on television.

The summit is the latest attempt to draw a line under World War II since Japan and the Soviet Union began discussions in 1956.

Mr Abe's late father, Shintaro, took the lead in negotiations with Moscow as a foreign minister but died in 1991 after pushing for talks while suffering from cancer.

Mr Lavrov said Mr Abe and Mr Putin also discussed Asia-Pacific security issues and Russian concerns over United States military presence, which he said Moscow saw as "disproportionate" to North Korea's missile threat.

The two leaders will leave the hot-spring resort and travel to Tokyo today for more talks and a joint press appearance before attending an economic forum.

Mr Abe has looked to eke out concessions by dangling the prospect of major Japanese investment in front of Moscow, which is mired in an economic crisis.

But few believe Mr Putin is likely to cave in to Japanese demands to hand back at least some control over the islands, especially after US President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to improve ties with Russia.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2016, with the headline 'Putin and Abe thrash out dispute over four islands'. Print Edition | Subscribe