TOKYO Japan and Russia have agreed to seek a "new approach" to settling a territorial row that has precluded a World War II peace treaty between them. Tokyo hopes to parlay economic cooperation into progress on the dispute.
At a summit in the Russian city of Sochi on May 6, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid out an eight-point proposal for economic collaboration. How the plan is implemented "will depend on how Russia moves on the territorial issue," a high-level Japanese official said the next day.
The dispute concerns the southernmost Kuril Islands, which are controlled by Russia but claimed by Japan, where they are known as the Northern Territories. After the summit, Abe said he felt the discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin had brought the two sides closer to a breakthrough.
The summit lasted for more than three hours. About halfway through, Abe invited Putin to chat on the sidelines. "If you generally agree with my opinion," Abe said, "then the two of us should talk together."
They spoke one-on-one for 35 minutes, through an interpreter. "We were able to have a good conversation," Putin said when the two rejoined the group. Abe made the economic proposal shortly thereafter.
Since the Soviet era, talks on the territorial dispute have cycled between avoiding and embracing the entanglement of economic issues with politics. Abe appears to be trying to forge a new path. This is expected to involve working on economic matters in parallel with negotiations on the islands to improve the odds of progress on the latter.
Despite the shift, "Japan's stance of seeking a decision on the return of the four islands of the Northern Territories remains unchanged," a member of the Japanese delegation to the summit said.
Past attempts at a deal include the 1998 Kawana Proposal presented by then-Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin. It would have put the disputed islands within Japanese territory, while letting Russia continue to govern them for a period of time. Other Japanese proposals also left effective control of the islands in Moscow's hands.
Japan's best hope is to wait for Russia to agree to a compromise, then propose an equitable solution. To make that happen, Tokyo is working hard to arrange a visit by Putin to Japan sometime this year.
DIPLOMATIC CHESS Abe is taking advantage of Russia's international isolation and economic woes, but there is no guarantee Moscow will prove receptive. Some speculate that Russia is trying to cozy up to Tokyo in order to drive a wedge between Group of Seven members ahead of the G-7 summit in Japan later this month.
And talk of a new approach does not mean that real progress has been made, some in Russia argue. Both sides are focused on acknowledging the breakdown in past negotiations and improving the situation, a member of Putin's delegation told The Nikkei.
Moscow, knowing Tokyo's desire to resolve the territorial issue, hardly lacks leverage. Indeed, Putin has no incentive to seriously discuss a compromise on the islands, even in private, so long as plans on the economic side remain nebulous.
Abe's proposal has been met with a shrug by the Russian media so far. With Japan's upper house election scheduled for July, the prime minister simply wanted to show the public that he is prepared to tackle a key issue in a new way, according to an expert writing in the Kommersant business newspaper.
Nikkei staff writer Takayuki Tanaka in Sochi, Russia, contributed to this report.