Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is once again pushing hard to resolve the Kuril islands dispute with Russia, Reuters reports:
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is betting that close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s economic woes and regional concerns about China’s rise will help him make progress in a decades-old territorial row when the men meet in December.
Abe, 62, who wants to leave a diplomatic legacy with a breakthrough in ties with Russia, may even alter a long-standing demand that the sovereignty of all four disputed islands northeast of Hokkaido be resolved before a peace treaty ending World War Two is signed, politicians and experts said.
Abe’s courtship of Putin risks irking key ally the United States, given that Washington is feuding with Moscow over Syria and the annexation of Crimea, although Japanese diplomats have sought to ease American concerns.
“I will resolve the territorial issue, end the abnormal situation in which no peace treaty has been concluded even 71 years after the war and cultivate the major possibility of Japan-Russia cooperation in areas such as the economy and energy,” Abe said in a speech to parliament this week.
Abe and Putin have met 14 times over the Japanese PM’s two terms, and there has been no substantive progress. But Abe clearly remains optimistic, and he’s signaled that he’s willing to offer more to Moscow if that’s what it will take to get a deal.
But the basic problem remains: Abe wants this more than Putin does. And although there are many reasons for Russia and Japan to draw nearer, many of them aren’t much affected by the outstanding Kuril dispute. Japan can still buy Russia’s oil and both countries can cooperate on security issues involving China. Normalizing relations would be a help, but it’s not necessary for many agenda items to move forward. At the summit in December, progress is expected on a host of military and economic issues regardless of how the Kuril islands conversation goes.
International observers have long felt that if a deal is to happen, it will be under Abe and Putin. Both men have strong nationalist credentials and are as likely to have the political capital to expend as anyone. The question is whether even the most favorable conditions are enough to overcome deep-seated animosity and distrust between countries which fought many bloody battles in the early twentieth century. The answer remains to be seen.