December 14, 2016 5:09 am JST

Abe, Putin place differing weights on economic ties

Leaders not exactly eye to eye on link to sovereignty row

TOKYO -- While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recognizes the need for building trust with Russia, he knows that letting Moscow enjoy the fruits of economic partnership before extracting territorial concessions would not sit well with his public.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's interview with Japanese media underscores the disconnect between the two leaders on how economic cooperation fits with the issue of the Russian-administered islands Japan calls the Northern Territories and wants returned.

At their May summit in Sochi, Abe talked up a "new approach," which observers took to mean pursuing a solution based on mutual trust built through broad cooperation on economic, diplomatic and other fronts. This would depart from past Japanese governments' tendency to directly link economic and territorial deal-making.

Abe laid out an eight-point plan for economic cooperation tailored to Russia's needs -- there is even a heading on extending healthy life expectancy. Putin described the plan as the only realistic way forward.

Yet the two men do not exactly see eye to eye on getting from there to a territorial solution. Putin points to a need for building up trust between the two peoples gradually, through economic and other exchanges, in order to create an environment conducive to resolving the island dispute. For political reasons, Abe finds himself preoccupied with the latter issue.

While the Japanese side sees Putin's stop in Abe's home prefecture of Yamaguchi, where the two men will discuss the dispute, as the highlight of the Russian leader's visit, the Russian side places greater weight on their economic policy summit in Tokyo.

The idea of joint economic activities throughout the Northern Territories offers a possible route to a compromise. Putin seems to be holding out hope that expanding the possibility of such cooperation to all four parts of the island chain -- not just the two mentioned in a Soviet-era declaration -- would enable both sides to get past the question of their sovereignty and satisfy the Japanese government's desire for a four-island solution.

Tokyo sees this as a precondition for concluding a formal peace treaty. Expanding bilateral exchanges throughout the islands would also contribute to the trust Putin professes to want.

Starting full-fledged talks on joint economic activities in the Northern Territories may prove the biggest achievement of this week's summit. But with Japan unwilling to accept cooperation under Russian sovereignty, the prospect of a mutually satisfactory arrangement is still distant.

Meanwhile, Abe is stuck in a tricky position over sanctions Japan has imposed on Russia as part of the Group of Seven's response to the situation in Ukraine. Abe wants to keep the door open for dialogue. But his government also sets store by G-7 solidarity, as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reaffirmed in a news conference Tuesday.

(Nikkei)

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