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International relations

Japan and Russia plan high-level talks on defense, diplomacy

Abe and Putin to agree to 'two plus two' talks at summit

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam last November.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan and Russia intend to have their top foreign affairs and defense officials meet this year, part of Tokyo's effort to build bilateral ties as it works to settle a long-standing territorial dispute.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to affirm plans for the "two plus two" talks, likely to be held in the fall, when they meet Saturday in Moscow. North Korea will be high on the ministers' agenda, as it was during the last round in March 2017, when the two sides agreed to cooperate on dealing with Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs.

Abe and Putin will likely also agree to have the top uniform officers of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the Ground SDF visit Moscow, following a trip to Japan last year by Russian military chief Valery Gerasimov, to foster mutual trust.

Tokyo hopes that cultivating closer security and economic ties with Moscow will bring the two sides closer to a postwar peace treaty to resolve the dispute over the southern Kuril Islands, which are effectively controlled by Moscow and claimed by Japan as the Northern Territories.

Abe and Putin will also agree to repeat a program this year allowing former residents of the Russia-controlled islands to visit the graves of their relatives without visas. Japan hopes to make the visit an annual event, but the Russian side is unlikely to agree to such an arrangement this time.

But relations between Russia and the U.S., a close ally of Japan, have soured over Moscow's alleged interference in the American presidential election in 2016.

"If we deepen our cooperation with Russia too much, our relationship with the U.S. could deteriorate," a concerned Japanese government insider said.

On the security front, Russia has criticized Japan's plans to install U.S.-made Aegis Ashore missile defense systems, while Tokyo objects to Moscow's deployment of missile batteries on the disputed Kurils.

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