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Not a good time for Abe to seek deal with Putin over disputed islands

Apr 23. 2017
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By Cai Hong
China Daily
Asia News Network

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to visit Moscow on April 27, seeking to deepen his country’s economic ties with Russia in an effort to resolve the two countries’ dispute over four islands off Hokkaido. His frequent meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin have helped them build familiarity, but not necessarily trust.

The islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuril Islands in Russia, were controlled by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II. The territorial dispute has prevented Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty that would formally end their World War II hostilities.

Abe has said he will do “whatever it takes” to sign a treaty with Russia to end the dispute. Since taking office for the second time in late 2012, he has launched a charm offensive toward Putin with the lure of economic cooperation with Russia, whose economy has been hit by low oil prices and Western sanctions. Abe has hoped the economic arrangements would pave the path for significant progress on the dispute. But although Abe and Putin inked numerous deals during their meeting in Japan in December, there was no big breakthrough on the territorial row. However, they agreed to start negotiations on joint economic activities on the four islands, as an approach to promote territorial and peace treaty talks.

At the upcoming Abe-Putin meeting in Moscow, Japan and Russia are scheduled to reach a broad agreement on an expansion of visa-free trips to the islands by former Japanese residents, mainly to visit family graves. Yet despite Abe’s outreach to Putin, the Russian leader views Japan with significant suspicion. During his Japan trip in December, Putin raised the issue of Japan’s aims for ballistic missile defense.

There are calls within Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and defense ministry to push for deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile system.

And although Abe has put much effort into getting on Russian leader’s good side, the flip-flops in US President Donald Trump’s diplomacy-to be more exact his policy toward Russia-may lead to change in Japan’s foreign and security policies, which would increase Russia's distrust of Japan.

When Abe met with Trump in the US in early February, the two talked about Russia. At that time Trump backed Abe in seeking closer ties with Russia.

And on January 28, Trump held phone conversations with several world leaders, including Putin. Trump had repeatedly advocated establishing a political dialogue with Moscow and expressed readiness to build positive relations with Russia. During the US presidential election campaign Trump suggested that the US cooperate with Russia on fighting the Islamic State extremist group in Syria. However, US-Russia ties have dived to “an all-time low”, as Trump put it, after he ordered airstrikes on Syria on April 5 in response to chemical attacks allegedly ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against civilians. The US blamed Russia for standing behind and covering up the Syrian government’s gas attacks.

Russia has blasted the US airstrikes as an “act of aggression” against a sovereign state in violation of international law. Putin has compared the US attack on Syria to the Iraq War in 2003. Abe has voiced support for the air strikes Trump ordered against Syria, praising the “strong commitment” of the US president to global and allied security. So coming as it does amid heightened tensions between the US and Russia, it doesn’t seem to be a good time for Abe to seek a deal with Putin on the islands. The dispute will likely continue to be a stumbling block in Japan-Russia ties for the foreseeable future.

The author is Tokyo bureau chief for the China Daily .

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