Tokyo, Dec 16: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Tokyo Friday to continue talks that began yesterday in Nagato, a tourist town in the west of Japan famous for its hot springs.
The issue under scrutiny is an attempt to reach an agreement on the sovereignty of the Kurile Islands, north of Japan, which has divided the two countries for 70 years. But the two leaders are also concerned about the growing power of China in the China Sea and the US influence in Asia.
The Kuril Islands are a chain of 60 islands between Hokkaido and the peninsula of Kamchatka, in the far east of Siberia. The conflict concerns the sovereignty of four of them, called “Northern Territories” in Japan and “Southern Kuriles” in Russia.
These were occupied by Moscow at the end of the Second World War, who expelled about 17,000 Japanese who lived there. They are of great economic value - for the amount of fish that their waters offer - and even strategic since they are Russia’s port of entry to the Pacific.
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe seems to also have personal reasons for seeking a solution: his father, the late Shintaro Abe, as foreign minister tried in vain to find a solution in the 1980s.
After Thursday’s meeting in Nagato, Abe told reporters that the dialogue between the two was very ‘frank’ and ‘deep’. They have proposed a possible economic cooperation in the islands, the freedom to visit them by former residents, a special legal status of the Kuriles, which does not question the issue of sovereignty. The agreement has not yet been reached.
Other themes emerged in the dialogue, however, and they are: Putin’s concern over possible US missile systems in Japan to contain North Korea, but that could threaten Siberian territory; Abe’s concern over the growth of China’s influence in the China Sea and Asia and strengthening economic and strategic cooperation between Tokyo and Moscow.
Putin’s visit is also in some ways a re-emergence of Russia still hit by international sanctions for its invasion of the Crimea. Japan is the first country in the G7 to have him invited.