TOKYO -- Not long ago, Japan had high hopes of resolving a decades-old territorial dispute with Moscow. Yet the latest Japan-Russia summit yielded no concrete progress, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thoroughly outmaneuvered by a Russian leader adept at diplomatic deal-making.
Abe and President Vladimir Putin agreed last week to discuss joint economic development on the four disputed islands, called the Northern Territories by Japan and the Southern Krils by Russia, but they made no concessions on the sovereignty issue.
"I want to discuss how we can cooperate on the islands," Abe proposed to Putin this May when he spoke to him for 35 minutes, accompanied only by their interpreters, in the Russian resort town of Sochi. "I want to talk about what we can do together."
He explained a "new approach" to Russia, centered on building trust through such activities as economic cooperation, with the aim of eventually reaching a resolution on the territorial dispute and signing a peace treaty. Tokyo's previous strategy was to focus on the legal and historical debate regarding the ownership of the islands.
Abe also proposed an eight-point plan for economic cooperation. The Russian response was positive, and the two leaders promised to meet again that September in Vladivostok.
"I could feel a response from Russia that could lead to a breakthrough," Abe told reporters afterward.
But the new approach was just an abstract idea at that point. When a government official flying home from Sochi asked what was "new" about it, National Security Council chief Shotaro Yachi admitted that he was "still not completely sure."
Abe adviser Eiichi Hasegawa and other officials who hail from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry argued that the vexing question of sovereignty and ownership of the Northern Territories should be put aside. But those from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the prime minister's office was naive and did not understand how cunning Russia could be.
Abe did not think that a conventional approach would bring any progress. "We can't accept the return of two islands while we negotiate on the other two," he said in late August, denying the possibility of first securing the return of the Habomai and Shikotan islands.
Putin welcomed Abe's proposal for joint economic activities in the Northern Territories at their September summit in Vladivostok. When the Japanese leader brought up concerns at home that Russia would benefit from the projects and still refuse to make any concessions, Putin asked for his trust.
The duo then agreed to meet in Abe's home prefecture of Yamaguchi on Dec. 15. "I was able to see the path" toward concrete developments, the prime minister told reporters after the meeting.
"I think we have a good chance," Abe said to those close to him. The government and the ruling coalition turned optimistic, and some observers expected a snap lower house election following some progress on the territorial dispute in December.
The Japanese government was even considering a plan for joint control of the islands as a solution to the ownership issue. Moscow adamantly defends its sovereignty over the chain. But Tokyo thought that effective joint administration would be possible if some compromise could be reached.
Russia hardened its stance in the autumn. Responding to rumors that Abe would call a snap election in Japan after securing progress on the territorial issue, a top Russian official slammed Tokyo for using the territorial issue for political gain and denied that the islands would be handed to Japan anytime soon. With its own presidential election coming up in 2018, Moscow grew sensitive to public opinion.
Talks between Yachi and Russian national security chief Nikolai Patrushev, a close Putin aide, also hit a wall. Russia was concerned with the possibility of a U.S. military presence near the Northern Territories. Japan explained that American involvement in the region would curb China, also benefiting Russia. But Patrushev was not convinced.
"It is impossible and even harmful, in my opinion, to determine any time limits" for the signing of a Japan-Russia peace treaty, Putin said at the end of October.
"Japanese optimism intensified Russian distrust," a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.
Then Donald Trump, who seems to be warming up to Moscow, won the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8. Russia had been weighed down by Western sanctions over its involvement in Ukraine. Improved ties with Washington would give Moscow less reason to compromise with Tokyo.
"Maybe I was too optimistic," Abe said immediately before a Peru summit in November. He and Putin once again discussed joint economic activities, but the Russian leader would not budge on sovereignty. Crude oil prices picked up after OPEC agreed late that month to cut output, further strengthening Moscow's hand.
"It is not an easy issue," a stern-faced Abe said after. But when an official charged with economic cooperation on the islands asked him for instructions, the prime minister said to go ahead.
Joint activities in the Northern Territories could be taken as de facto acceptance of Russian control over the chain. But Abe agreed to begin discussions on this topic at his most recent summit with Putin last week.
"There will probably be some criticism," Abe told Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and METI chief Hiroshige Seko at a bar Thursday after meeting with Putin. "I owe [the public] a convincing explanation." The prime minister almost sounded as if he were giving himself a pep talk.