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19:33 31 August 2015

OPINION: Putin and Abe

By Hiroki Sugita
TOKYO, Aug. 31, Kyodo

This summer we commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of the Second World War. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a 70th anniversary statement, in which he expressed remorse and apologized for Japan's aggression and colonial rule in Asia and the Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s.

His intention was to end all foreign criticism of the war and of the criminal acts of the Imperial Army. However, he did not mention one consequence of the war -- the unresolved issue of the ownership of four islands that have been occupied by Russia for the past 70 years.

Abe is quietly preparing for the final resolution of the prolonged dispute over the sovereignty of these islands, which both Japan and Russia claim. One hindrance Abe must overcome is the negative attitude of the United States.

When I interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in June, he said he was waiting for a Japanese proposal to stimulate the stalled negotiations over the islands. He has said in the past that Russia would return two of the islands to Japan and continue negotiations over the other two.

Japan's position is that all four islands should be under Japan's jurisdiction, so there is a wide gap between the positions of the two countries.

"I can't tell what Japan will propose to us, because Japan has not said anything," Putin said. He has also stressed that "every issue can be resolved through talks," indicating his desire to hold direct discussions with Prime Minister Abe.

Putin and Abe have held five meetings and have fostered a close relationship. Russia and Japan have agreed to sign a peace treaty after the settlement of the issue of the four islands.

The territory and peace treaty issue is one of many questions that Putin has expressed willingness to discuss with Japan. Regarding economic cooperation, he has described a natural gas production project in the far eastern part of Russia as "more successful than expected," and disclosed that he has ordered production to be doubled. The project, managed by Russian, Japanese, U.S. and British companies, started production of LNG in 2009, and 20 percent of the product is exported to Japan.

For Japan, the most nightmarish scenario regarding Russia is that it forms an anti-Western bloc with China. However, in the interview, President Putin denied such a prospect and criticized China for its lack of transparency and failure to comply with international standards in building new multilateral organizations such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

As another sign of his willingness to talk with Japan, he refrained from criticizing Tokyo for joining the anti-Russian sanctions group formed in response to the annexation of Crimea.

I interviewed him last year too, when he blasted Japan for imposing sanctions on Russia. However, this year he avoided the issue and only explained his hopes for future cooperation.

Satisfied with those remarks, Abe placed a call to Putin in late June of this year, and the two leaders agreed to accelerate preparation for Putin's scheduled visit to Japan later in 2015. The United States is pressuring Abe not to speed up his diplomatic adventure with Russia, though the U.S. pressure is neither new nor unexpected.

In an April meeting in Washington, President Barack Obama told Abe to be careful not to get closer to Putin because the international community should maintain solidarity against Russia.

Abe insisted that Japan needed to talk with Russia to pursue its own national interests, including the northern islands issue.

Since that fierce exchange with Obama, Abe has taken a more independent approach toward Russia. Abe met with Russian State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin in May, and handed him a message for Putin expressing his hope of welcoming him to Tokyo. Abe also urged his European colleagues to resume dialogue with Russia at the Group of Seven summit in Germany last June. An Abe advisor stated that Abe had made up his mind to build an intimate relationship with Putin at the risk of angering Obama.

Of course, it is not an easy task for Abe to take his plans further. The sanctions imposed on Russia ban the financing of new industrial projects in Russia. A U.S. Energy Department source said that planned new energy projects in Russia might violate these sanctions.

It is even harder to achieve a resolution of the territory issue. As the expectations for the territorial talks rise, we see further preliminary skirmishes.

In late August, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited one of the islands to confirm Russian sovereignty over them. In protest, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida decided to postpone a visit to Moscow. Even despite such setbacks, however, Japanese mainstream policymakers believe that substantial talks will lead to improvements in many fields, including economic and political cooperation.

For the past 70 years, Japan has pursued diplomacy independently of the United States only to see it blocked by the White House.

Regarding the northern territory negotiations, it is widely known that in the 1950s, the United States fiercely opposed settlement of the dispute. In the context of the Cold War, the United States was concerned that a territorial settlement and subsequent peace treaty would lead to full rapprochement between the two countries and the collapse of the Western bloc in Asia.

Now, 25 years since the end of the Cold War, we see a very aggressive and challenging Russia led by President Putin. The United States has a relationship with Russia that resembles that of the Cold War.

Under such unfavorable conditions, Japan will redouble its efforts this autumn to open a new path to becoming a normal country with a more independent diplomacy.

(Hiroki Sugita is the managing senior writer of Kyodo News.)

==Kyodo

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