Putin heads to Japan for hot spring meeting with Abe on disputed islands

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an annual reception to mark Heroes of the Fatherland Day in the Kremlin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an annual reception to mark Heroes of the Fatherland Day in the Kremlin in Moscow.PHOTO: EPA

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin heads to Japan on Thursday (Dec 14) to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the latest bid to reach an elusive deal on a territorial dispute that has prevented their nations signing a formal treaty to end World War II.

Mr Abe will host Mr Putin at the hot springs in his ancestral city of Nagato in the hope of breaking the ice on an agreement over the Kuril Islands, seized by Soviet troops in 1945 and demanded back by Tokyo ever since.

But hope is scant that despite months of preparatory negotiations the leaders can finally hammer out the differences over the four islands - known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan - during Mr Putin's first visit in more than a decade.

Instead the two will likely settle for a raft of pacts to bolster business ties battered by sanctions slapped on Moscow by staunch US ally Tokyo over the Ukraine crisis.

Mr Putin's two-day trip, including a forum in Tokyo, has been long in the pipeline and follows two visits by Mr Abe to Russia this year - one to the Black Sea resort of Sochi and another in September to the far-eastern city of Vladivostok.

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

"This new approach is very bold," said Dr James Brown, assistant professor in political science at Temple University in Japan. "He is determined to try to make a breakthrough."

But few believe that Mr Putin is likely to cave in to Japanese demands to hand back at least some control over the islands, especially after the election of Mr Donald Trump in the US gave him an unexpected fillip.

In the run-up to the meeting officials have been careful to roll back any expectation of a deal.

"It's not simple to bring the two sides' positions closer," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida this month.

And while Tokyo might have been hoping that the mood could be changing, Russia pointedly fired off a timely message of strength ahead of Mr Putin's visit by bolstering its might on the Kurils.

Last month Moscow reportedly deployed coastal defence missiles to two of the four islands, heightening Japanese anger already piqued by the construction of two modern military compounds.

The meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Abe is just the latest attempt to draw a line finally under World War II since Japan and the Soviet Union began talks in 1956.

Experts view recent rapprochement efforts as a positive development for Moscow's trade ties with a stalwart US ally but doubt that either side will budge on the territorial issue.

Bilateral trade fell last year by 31 per cent to US$21.3 billion (S$30.3 billion), in part due to Japan signing up to Western sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine.

But some 30 agreements between Russian and Japanese companies are expected to be signed during Mr Putin's visit, including in the fields of energy, agriculture and technology.

Analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said that under its current difficult economic circumstances, Moscow is "highly interested in attracting Japanese investments to Russia's far east".

But Japanese experts doubt that Tokyo will be able to use its economic leverage to force Moscow to make compromises over the islands.

"It's too optimistic to expect that economic cooperation will help win Russian concessions on the territorial row," said Dr Shigeki Hakamada, a political science professor at Japan's University of Niigata Prefecture.

Although Russia is seeking to thaw relations on the economic front, Mr Putin insisted that "we don't trade in territories" in an interview with Bloomberg News in September.

"Throughout this year there have been clear indications that the Russian side is delighted to talk about economic cooperation," analyst Brown said.

"They are willing to build closer relations but they have never really given any sign that a major breakthrough on the territorial issue was a possibility."