TOKYO -- For decades, Japan has been striving to get back a group of four northern islands seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II. Tokyo has been offering economic cooperation as an incentive for Moscow to return to Japan the chain of islands off Hokkaido. But years of these and other diplomatic efforts have achieved nothing.
To break the impasse surrounding this territorial dispute -- which has prevented Japan and Russia from signing a formal peace treaty -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided on a drastic change of tack. But his "new approach" has as much to do with China as with recovering the islands.
During his three-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian resort town of Sochi on May 6, Abe proposed that the two countries start fresh talks based on a "new approach." During the approximately 35-minute tete-a-tete, Putin agreed to give the proposal a try, according to Japanese government sources.
While neither Tokyo nor Moscow has offered any clue as to what this approach will entail, government sources have said it is intended to be a radical departure from the way Japan has been grappling with the territorial dispute.
The geopolitical landscape in Asia offers many opportunities for security cooperation between Japan and Russia. Under Abe's new approach, Tokyo and Moscow would first focus on building mutual trust through such cooperation. Once these efforts have improved and strengthened bilateral ties, the leaders of the two countries would be able to make the tough political decisions needed to settle the dispute.
This is an about-face from Japan's traditional strategy for dealing with the issue, which has been to make resolving the territorial dispute a prerequisite for expanding bilateral relations.
Abe's decision to adopt this new strategy is down largely to China's increasingly assertive behavior, which is posing a growing security threat to Japan. Abe has decided that patching up relations with Russia is crucial for Japan to effectively respond to China's muscle-flexing.
"Although Abe is making great effort to solve the territorial dispute, realizing the reversion of the islands is not his only, or even the biggest, objective," one of his close aides said. "His principal aim is to strengthen Japan's strategic position by building a closer relationship between the two countries and thereby increasing diplomatic options for responding to China's rise."
Putin apparently sees potential benefits for Russia in Abe's proposal.
Russia is also feeling threatened by China's expanding presence. Its gross domestic product is now less than one-fifth of China's, while its population is just one-tenth that of its neighbor.
Putin is now trying to figure out how far Abe is ready to go to strike a deal on the territorial issue.
Prior to his talks with Abe in Sochi, Putin was briefed on related issues by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in two 3.5-hour sessions, according to a diplomatic source. When Abe suggested to Putin that they talk things over one-on-one during their meeting, Lavrov attempted to be present. But Putin agreed to talk without any other officials present.
Putin also proposed a meeting with Abe in September in the Russian Far East. This is something of a breach of diplomatic protocol because it should be Putin's turn to visit Japan. But there is a hidden motive in his proposal, according to the diplomatic source.
"Putin wants to hold one-on-one talks with Abe again to size up how serious he is [about the new approach]," the source said. "Putin fears he will not be able to have an honest and candid conversation on this sensitive issue with Abe in Japan, where their talks can be wiretapped. He doesn't have to worry about it if they meet in Russia. In addition, he will be able to record their conversation secretly."
If the two leaders see eye to eye in their next meeting, Putin will likely visit Japan as early as December for the official launch of bilateral negotiations.
A hard bargain
But Abe's new strategy entails considerable diplomatic risks. While he recognizes that Russia will gain economically from stronger ties with Japan, Putin seems to have no intention of pursuing such gains at the expense of Moscow's security interests. All that Putin is willing to offer in return for Japan's economic cooperation is probably two of the four disputed islands, namely the much smaller Habomai islets and the Shikotan island.
The island chain occupies a vital geographical position in terms of Russia's strategy for countering the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That strategy relies heavily on nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarines deployed to the Sea of Okhotsk.
The northern islands are located on a key passage to the Pacific for these submarines, according to a Russian military.
If tensions grow between Russia and the U.S., the northern islands will assume an even greater strategic importance.
Abe has made a bold move to start serious talks to settle the long-running dispute. As he is well aware, however, his negotiating partner, a former chief of the KGB, is a shrewd strategist.