SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin ended two days of talks without any significant breakthrough on the major issue that divides them, a territorial dispute that dates back to World War II.
The two leaders met Friday in Tokyo after holding talks the day before at a hot spring resort in southwest Japan.
In the Japanese capital, police kept nationalist protesters away from the summit. The demonstrators were demanding that Russia give back the southern Kuril islands in the western Pacific that were seized by Soviet forces at the end of the war, forcing about 17,000 Japanese residents to flee.
The two countries have been unable to agree on a post war peace treaty because of the ongoing dispute over ownership of the islands.
Investing for peace
In Tokyo, the two leaders discussed a possible peace treaty and agreed that fostering economic cooperation would help create the conditions to reach some future agreement on the island chain.
At a news conference following the leaders summit, Abe said “without trust the goal can not be reached.”
To that end the two leaders Friday signed 68 agreements, many focusing on energy development deals.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a $1 billion investment fund to promote economic cooperation between the two countries.
And the Russian energy company Novatek announced it had signed agreements with Japan’s Mitsubishi and Marubeni corporations on an Arctic liquefied natural gas project.
Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, said Japan has long tried to use the promise of significant economic investment in Russia in exchange for returning the disputed islands, but Moscow has been unwilling to compromise.
“There’s always going to be trouble giving back territory that is strategically important from a strategic geography perspective for Russia’s defense, and also for the simple fact these islands are being seen as have been taken after a war in which Russia spilled a whole lot of its own blood,” Newsham said.
The Kuril chain of islands is near key shipping lanes connecting Russia to the Pacific and a region with abundant commercial fishing and the potential of offshore reserves of oil and gas.
Putin said that Russia may relax rules for Japanese citizens to visit the Kuril islands.
A Kremlin economic aide Thursday the two sides would issue a statement about possible joint economic activity on the disputed islands at the summit, adding that any activity would be based on Russian legislation.
Hosaka Yuji, a Japan analyst with Sejong University in Seoul, says residents living on the disputed island support some sort of compromise that would bring in more jobs and investment.
“People living in the islands are mostly in favor of joint economic activities, and Japan has suggested to have joint economic activities in the four islands (that are under the control) of Russia, (governed) by Russian laws or by establishing special laws,” Hosaka said.
A Japanese spokesman, however, reiterated Japan’s policy that any joint economic activity should not infringe on Tokyo’s legal claim to the islands.
Last year Russia announced plans to build a military base on the Kuril Islands, along with four Arctic bases as part of Putin’s plan to build up his country’s military presence in the region.
Tokyo has raised concerns with Moscow over the militarization of this disputed territory.
On Thursday the two leaders stressed the importance of resuming a security dialogue, according to a Japanese official.
Ministerial level security talks were halted after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and the United States and other Group of Seven countries imposed sanctions in response.
Russia has reportedly increased spending by more than $600 billion in the last decade to modernize its military, and that includes deploying new nuclear submarines, jets and helicopters.
By developing closer ties with Russia, Japan may undermine Beijing’s relationship with Moscow.
“I think it is more the Japanese are trying to hedge their bets against the Chinese and perhaps, sort of, put a crack into the Russian Chinese defense relationship that has emerged in the last four or five years,” Newsham said.
Since 2012, China and Russia have conducted five joint military exercises, including a joint naval drill in the South China Sea in September, a region where China has territorial disputes with a number of its neighbors.
Newsham said the relationship between Moscow and Beijing is complicated by mutual mistrust and Russia’s arm sales to China’s adversaries India and Vietnam.
Tokyo and Beijing have competing claims to islands in the East China Sea. The two adversaries have complained about provocative military actions taken by the other that include close encounters between fighter jets in the airspace above the Pacific Ocean.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.