Japan and Russia will likely revive security talks and keep discussing a territorial row that has kept them from signing a peace treaty formally ending World War Two, Russia’s foreign minister said on Thursday, as the countries’ leaders met. Japanese Prime Minister Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks at a hot spring resort, seeking progress on the row over windswept isles in the western Pacific controlled by Russia but also claimed by Japan.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Putin had offered to resume security talks among their foreign and defence ministers, suspended after Russia annexed the Crimea region in 2014, triggering Western sanctions. “The prime minister has reacted positively, so we hope such a decision will be taken,” Lavrov said as the two leaders continued their one-on-one talks.
The two sides are likely to clinch agreements on economic cooperation in areas from medical technology to energy. But both have sought to dampen expectations of a breakthrough in the feud over the islands seized by Soviet forces at the end of the war. The two met at a mountainside inn at the hot spring resort of Nagato in Abe’s home constituency in southwest Japan. They will meet again in Tokyo on Friday.
“After such a meeting between leaders, I promise you can relax in onsen,” Abe said in welcoming Putin, referring to the hot spring, after the Russian leader arrived nearly three hours late. Abe has pledged to resolve the territorial dispute, in hopes of leaving a diplomatic legacy that eluded his foreign minister father, and of building better ties with Russia to counter a rising China.
But a deal to end the dispute over the islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories and in Russia as the Southern Kuriles, carries risks for Putin, who does not want to tarnish his image at home of a staunch defender of Russian sovereignty. The isles have strategic value for Russia, ensuring naval access to the western Pacific.
Putin also told Abe of Russia’s concerns about the U.S. presence in Asia, which Russia thinks is disproportionate to the North Korea nuclear and missile threat, Lavrov said. “We thought that our Japan colleagues started to understand Russian worries in this regard better,” he said.
Japan has long insisted that its sovereignty over all four of the disputed islands off Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido be confirmed before a peace treaty is signed.
But there have been signs it has been rethinking its stance, perhaps by reviving a formula called “two-plus-alpha”, based partly on a 1956 joint declaration in which the Soviet Union agreed it would hand over the two smaller islands after a peace treaty was signed. Over the decades, the two sides have at times floated the idea of joint economic activity on the islands, but how to do that without undercutting either side’s claim to sovereignty has never been resolved.
Lavrov said Abe and Putin also discussed Syria. The talks come as Russia faces Western criticism over the destruction of eastern Aleppo in Syria, where Russia is backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.