Japan, Russia to resume talks on disputed isles off Hokkaido next week

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TOKYO: Tokyo and the Kremlin will on Wednesday resume negotiations on the decades-old territorial row over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has announced.

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Chikahito Harada, Japan’s special representative for Japan-Russia relations, and his counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, will meet in Tokyo next week to discuss the longstanding territorial dispute over the islands, called the Northern Territories by Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia.

The two sides had agreed to resume talks when Kishida and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov met in Tokyo in April. The two ministers had said negotiations would be held soon after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the southern Russian city of Sochi to meet with President Vladimir Putin in May.

The meeting next week is also expected to lay the groundwork for a potential Putin visit to Japan.

Visiting Sergey Naryshkin, chairman of the State Duma, said on Friday that Putin was likely to visit Japan by the end of the year. He also confirmed that bilateral talks will be held when Abe attends the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September to discuss investment opportunities in Russia’s Far East and the Asia-Pacific region. Putin invited Abe during the May meeting.

Naryshkin, in Japan to attend the Russian Cultural Festival, also delivered a message from Putin when he met with Abe Thursday. Putin’s right-hand man is banned from entering the United States and European countries as part of sanctions imposed for Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine in 2014.

Solving the territorial issues with Russia is part of Abe’s grand scheme to deal with postwar issues. Tokyo has been trying to mend rocky bilateral relations with Russia that ensued after the annexation.

Despite the international pressure on Russia, Abe met with Putin in Sochi in May and the two leaders agreed to solve the issue by taking “a new approach, free of past ideas,” without specifying any details.

Experts have high expectations for the issue to be resolved, but it is unclear how many concessions each leader is willing to make because of the fundamental differences separating the countries.

While Russia emphasizes the importance of the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration, which states two of the isles, the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan, will be returned to Japan after a peace treaty is signed, Japan claims a peace treaty can only be signed after the territorial dispute is settled.

Russia is also stepping up its efforts to militarize the Kuril Islands. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in March that Russia will deploy a range of coastal missile systems along the chain.

Still, a high-ranking official at the Japanese Foreign Ministry said the apparent agitation is part of Russia’s strategy and that the ministry is aware the negotiations might not go smoothly. TNS

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