Tokyo has high hopes for Abe’s unofficial meeting with Putin

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TOKYO: Japanese officials say they have high expectations for improved bilateral relations going into Friday’s summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in which a longstanding territorial dispute and a potential visit to Tokyo by the Russian leader will likely be discussed.

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The scheduled unofficial three-and-a-half-hour meeting in the southern Russian city of Sochi comes at the end of Abe’s weeklong visit to Europe. He made stops in Italy, France, Belgium, Germany and Britain to lay the groundwork for the Group of Seven summit Japan is hosting later this month.

The unofficial nature of the stop, where there will be no official ceremonies or a joint news conference, is intentional, according to a high-ranking foreign ministry official, so Abe and Putin can hold frank, one-on-one talks.

The question is whether the two leaders can rebuild trust and momentum for negotiations that stalled after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Japan, in solidarity with the United States and European nations, imposed sanctions on Russia following the invasion.

Relations deteriorated even further after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said last September that the territorial issue over the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, was already resolved. The issue has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty to put an official end to their World War II conflict.

Before departing for Europe on Sunday, Abe had said, “We must sit down and talk in order to solve issues surrounding a peace treaty.”

Experts say the visit could set the final stage for the negotiations because the talks are being spearheaded by two leaders who have tremendous political capital and support at home.

“This is the continuation of the process that started in April 2013 when Abe visited, but the process was discontinued due to the Ukraine issues,” said Noboru Shimotomai, a professor at Hosei University. “The summit talks could allow both countries to talk about a peace treaty at a new level.”

The two leaders will also discuss strengthening economic cooperation between their respective countries. Russia’s economy has been hit hard by a plunge in oil prices.

Since the end of WWII, Japan and Russia have had a tenuous relationship due to the sovereignty dispute over the four islands in question that were seized by the then-Soviet Union at the end of the war and are controlled by Russia.

But Putin has raised hopes of resolving the issue in Japan with past comments. In March 2012, he said the two sides should accept hikiwake, a martial arts term meaning a tie or draw, over the issue.

Reaching a resolution is a political priority for Abe, whose father Shintaro Abe helped arrange then-President Mikhail Gorbachev’s first visit to Japan during his stint as foreign minister. Both leaders had also agreed to seek “a compromise acceptable to both sides” compromise over the sovereignty issue of the islands when they met in April 2013.

Tokyo and the Kremlin resumed high-level talks last October after Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida visited Moscow. Abe and Putin also talked on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Turkey as well as over a conference call earlier this year. TNS

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