February 19, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Abe-Putin relationship of trust can help advance territorial talks

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 8, the day after Abe attended the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in the Russian city of Sochi.     

     The leaders of major European countries and the U.S. were absent from the ceremonies, primarily on the grounds of Russia's poor human rights record. But Abe dared to attend. The action underscores the importance Abe places on enhancing the personal relationship of trust between him and Putin.

     This was the fifth top-level meeting between Japan and Russia in the little over a year of Abe's current term as prime minister. This year will likely see even more dialogue between the two leaders. At this latest meeting, Abe and Putin agreed to meet again in June on the sidelines of a summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, which will also take place in Sochi. Putin also plans to visit Japan this autumn.     

     These frequent contacts between the two leaders benefit Japan-Russia relations. Cooperation between the two countries economically and in terms of national security are deepening in particular. Conditions in Northeast Asia are becoming increasingly uncertain, given China's rising military spending and North Korea's nuclear development, among other destabilizing factors. This makes it important for Japan and Russia to bolster their ties, including those of security.

From the top down

One concern is the territorial dispute between the two nations over the four islands north of Japan's Hokkaido island. Putin appears eager to resolve the dispute and conclude a Japan-Russia peace treaty. At the Sochi meeting, he noted that a "good environment is being created for solving the toughest problem between Japan and Russia."

     At present, however, there is no sign of progress being made in the negotiations on sovereignty over those northern islands. Russia adheres to its claim that it acquired the islands as its territory as a result of World War II. Japan calls for confirmation that the islands belong to it. The gulf between the two over this remains profound.

     Tokyo and Moscow have started vice-foreign-minister-level meetings to discuss the territorial issue. The goal is to figure out a solution acceptable to both sides. The latest of these get-togethers was held in late January, but the only result was to further illuminate just how wide the gap is in the positions of the two nations.

     Moving Japan-Russia relations forward comprehensively, which would include economic issues as well as security, is important in that this would improve the environment surrounding the territorial negotiations. It would be problematic if the territorial issue were left behind as other issues took the spotlight. Putin's choices will be vital in resolving this issue. Making the most of the relationship of trust between the Japanese and Russian leaders, the two countries should also seek a breakthrough on the issue that starts from the top.

     At a press conference just after his meeting with Putin in Sochi, Abe said, "Efforts must be made to solve the territorial dispute between the two nations as early as possible," expressing his resolve to do so. Wisdom from all sides should be brought together to move the territorial talks forward.