Abe, Putin meet in bid to strengthen ties

Long-running territorial row has prevented WWII peace treaty and hindered trade

RUSSIA • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in a bid to bolster ties and seek to resolve a decades-long territorial dispute.

Tokyo-Moscow relations have been hamstrung by the row dating back to the end of World War II when Soviet troops seized the four southernmost islands in the Pacific Kuril chain, known as the Northern Territories in Japan.

Japan and Russia's lingering tensions have prevented them from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities, hindering trade and investment ties.

"This is a complex, multi-faceted issue that can only be resolved in a manner acceptable to both sides through an even deeper partnership between the two countries," Mr Putin's chief foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov said ahead of the visit.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said last month that Russia and Japan had agreed to start negotiations on signing a peace treaty "as soon as possible" after the meeting.

In the same month, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Tokyo that Russia wanted to "move forward" in relations but was not prepared to budge on the "result of World War II".

DEEPER TIES NEEDED

This is a complex, multi-faceted issue that can only be resolved in a manner acceptable to both sides through an even deeper partnership between the two countries.

CHIEF FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER YURY USHAKOV, on the dispute over the four southernmost islands in the Pacific Kuril chain.

Mr Putin said during a public phone-in last month that he thought a compromise on the territorial dispute "could be found at some point - and it will be found".

Moscow hopes the meeting will help to create a "constructive atmosphere in bilateral relations", but "immediate serious progress" was unlikely, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned.

Despite the warmer words from the Kremlin, tensions between the two sides continue to surface, and Japan has hit Russia with sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.

Russia in turn angered Japan recently by building modern compounds for its troops stationed on two of the disputed islands.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also infuriated Tokyo by visiting one of the islands, home to some 19,000 Russians, last year.

Mr Putin said last month that he welcomed Mr Abe's visit as it came despite "pressure from (Japan's) partners, particularly the United States".

Later this month Mr Abe will host a summit of the Group of Seven advanced industrial countries, from which Russia has been excluded over its annexation of Crimea.

"Evidently Japan will try to act as a kind of middleman in the talks process between Russia and the US," the Russian government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta said on Thursday.

US President Barack Obama reportedly asked Mr Abe in February to postpone his trip to Russia, according to sources quoted by Japan's Kyodo news agency.

The leaders are expected to discuss a long-planned visit by Mr Putin to Japan this year, after Mr Lavrov last month urged Tokyo to provide a firm date.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline 'Abe, Putin meet in bid to strengthen ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe