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Abe's Russia policy faces a key test with territorial dispute

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, Sept. 2.   © Reuters

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia Will it be another disappointment, or will there finally be some progress? Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will face a diplomatic moment of truth later this year when he hosts Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to break the deadlock over a long-standing territorial dispute.

At the summit on Sept. 2 on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Abe discussed bilateral economic cooperation with Putin, in hopes that it will lead to progress on the dispute over Russian-administered, Japanese-claimed islands off Japan's northern island of Hokkaido.

"We were able to have a frank discussion by ourselves" about the Kuril Islands, Abe said after the meeting. "I can see the path toward advancing detailed negotiations based on a new approach."

The two sides agreed that Putin will visit Abe's home constituency of Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on Dec. 15, making it the 16th summit between the two leaders. They will hold another summit in November in Peru.

During the economic forum, Abe called on Putin, who was in attendance, to hold annual bilateral summits in Vladivostok to strengthen economic cooperation and spur growth in the resource-rich region.

"Let us make the Russian Far East region a base for exports to Asia and the Pacific region," Abe said, as he expressed his eagerness to pursue the eight-point economic cooperation plan he presented to Putin in their summit in May.

Japan hopes stronger economic cooperation with Russia will help build trust to start negotiations on the long-running dispute that has prevented the two countries from signing a post-World War II peace treaty.

"I cannot help but say that it is an unnatural state that the important neighbors of Russia and Japan, which surely have unlimited potential, have to this day not yet concluded a peace treaty," Abe said. Putin agreed in principle, saying at a panel discussion during the forum "the problem should be solved ... . It is a tough choice, but it can be done."

Abe is using his connections at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to mobilize both government and private-sector actors in wooing Russia.

Toshiba has agreed to collaborate with Russian Post on postal and logistics automation systems. Mitsui & Co. and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation are planning a combined 21.7 billion ruble ($332 million) investment in Russia's state-run power company RusHydro.

Abe put in extra effort ahead of the meeting with Putin. He consulted foreign ministry officials many times in preparation, simulating how Putin might respond. He also appointed Economy Minister Hiroshige Seko, who spearheaded economic diplomacy with Russia during his time as deputy chief cabinet secretary, as minister for economic cooperation with Russia.

When Abe was vacationing in his hometown of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on Aug. 13, he stayed at a ryokan traditional Japanese inn, where guests can relax while soaking in hot springs.

A Japanese government source said, "Prime Minister Abe was probably inspecting the ryokan as a potential accommodation facility for Mr. Putin." The traditional inn is seen as an ideal place for the two leaders to deepen their relationship of trust.

Abe puts a particularly strong emphasis on diplomacy toward Russia, partly because he wants to drive a wedge between China and Russia, preventing the two powers from forming a united front against Japan. To that end, Abe also wants to step up security cooperation between Japan and Russia.

But despite Abe's strong will to resolve the dispute and sign the peace treaty during his term in office, the two countries remain far apart on the issue and there is no guarantee that negotiations over the islands will immediately take off.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian government expected no progress on the dispute following the talks on Sept. 2, Russia's Tass news agency reported.

"It would be wrong to think the territorial issue will move forward immediately after Putin's trip to Japan in December," said a source close to Abe.

Japan says the problem of the ownership of the islets, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, must be resolved before it will sign the treaty.

Russia says the ownership and peace treaty issues are not directly connected and that it legitimately took the islands at the end of World War II.

Japan will also have to be sensitive to what the U.S. will think, as Russia and Japan's most important ally have been locking horns since Russia annexed the Crimean region of Ukraine in 2014.

That is partly why Abe is sticking with his plan to invite Putin to Yamaguchi Prefecture, despite Russia's insistence that Putin make his Japan trip an official visit that would also take him to Tokyo.

Resolving the dispute is a legacy that has eluded past Japanese leaders, including his late father, former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe. The younger Abe is eager to make his mark.

Will he be able to resolve the decades-old row and cement a legacy? The test is about to begin.

Takuyuki Tanaka contributed to this article.

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