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International relations

Putin tones down rhetoric with Abe but treaty progress unclear

Foreign ministers meet again in February, with next summit in June

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for the 25th time Tuesday, but their close relationship has yet to produce a solution over the disputed islands.    © Kyodo

MOSCOW -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to continue accelerating negotiations toward a formal peace treaty for World War II during their summit here Tuesday afternoon, but the practical hurdles to such a pact remain high.

Abe and Putin met for the 25th time, just one month after their talks in Argentina. The majority of their three-hour conversation Tuesday involved peace treaty negotiations, the leaders revealed in a joint press conference afterward. They also committed to holding their next summit in Japan in June after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Japanese counterpart Taro Kono meet in February.

Putin toned down his frequently hard-line language regarding the four contested islands, administered by Russia as the southern Kurils but claimed by Japan as the Northern Territories. Notably, he did not voice his stance that the islands became Russian territory as a result of World War II, nor his concern about U.S. forces using the islands if transferred to Japan.

"Of course, we discussed the prospects for concluding a peace treaty," Putin said in his press statement.

"Our goal is to ensure the long-term and comprehensive development of Russian-Japanese relations at a high-quality level," he added. "The decision that the negotiators will come up with should be acceptable to the peoples of Russia and Japan and supported by both."

"Under the firm leadership of President Putin and me, we must join our efforts and work energetically to ensure even greater trust in relations between the citizens of Japan and the citizens of Russia, the relations of friends, and the search for a mutually acceptable solution," Abe said.

"We instructed our foreign ministers to hold the next round of talks on the sidelines of the security conference in Munich in February," he also noted.

Though both leaders took a cooperative stance at the summit, they did not explain what a mutually acceptable solution would look like.

A 1956 Soviet Union-Japan declaration states that two of the four islands -- the Habomai islets and Shikotan -- will be transferred to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. Putin and Abe agreed in Singapore last November to accelerate peace negotiations based on the joint declaration. Seeking ways to reinvigorate the economy, Moscow believes that a treaty could bring greater Japanese investment, technology and talent by improving trust with Tokyo.

But the joint declaration is filled with ambiguities, which means a peace treaty will require political decisions to be made by both leaders.

The document says, for example, that Russia "agrees to transfer to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan." Tokyo interprets this to mean that sovereignty of the islands belongs to Japan, while Putin maintains that nothing is specified about to whom sovereignty belongs after the transfer. Nor does the declaration mention the other two islands.

After meeting with Kono in Moscow on Jan. 14, Lavrov said that "it is very difficult to count on any progress" as long as Japan does not recognize Russian sovereignty over the islands.

The 1956 declaration also was signed long before the idea of an exclusive economic zone was conceived. Negotiations over the use of marine resources will have to start from scratch. About 3,000 Russians live on Shikotan as well, while the question of how to compensate former Japanese inhabitants of the island remains open.

The security pact between Japan and the U.S. represents another source of friction. Putin is wary that turning the islands over to Tokyo would allow for American forces to be deployed there.

The leaders also agreed to work toward more economic exchanges. Their conversation covered greater trade, Japanese investment in Russia and cooperation on liquefied natural gas development.

"We discussed the development of more ambitious plans to expand economic ties in key areas: from trade to investment and technological cooperation," Putin said. "In particular, it will be possible, already in the coming years, to set a goal to increase Russian-Japanese trade by at least 50% to $30 billion."

Abe also said that, "President Putin and I gave instructions to relevant people and agencies to work together clearly and promptly for the speedy implementation of joint economic activities" on the disputed islands.

Former Japanese residents will be able to visit relatives' graves on the islands by airplane as early as summer. And visitors to the islands from both countries will be increased to a total of 400,000 in 2023.

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