On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama took oblique (but obvious) aim at each other over the Syrian civil war in their respective speeches before the United Nations General Assembly. Putin and Obama also held a tense (though “surprisingly very frank,” according to the Russian leader) meeting Monday afternoon. While all eyes were on those tensions, Putin also held a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – a much more friendly encounter.
Abe and Putin met on the sidelines on the UNGA in New York on September 28. The meeting was expected; on September 25, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that he believes “frank exchanges of views will take place between the two countries’ leaders,” particularly “regarding the peace treaty negotiations, that is, in particular the territorial issue.”
Japan and Russia never formally signed a peace treaty to end World War II, thanks to a lingering territorial dispute over what Russia calls the Kuril Islands and Japan calls the Northern Territories. The then-Soviet Union annexed the islands in the final days of World War II.
When he assumed the office of prime minister for a second time in late 2012, Abe was determined to see movement on the territorial dispute, which would allow for a peace treaty to be signed between their two countries at long last. But diplomatic efforts fell victim to the larger geopolitical situation. After the Russian annexation of Crimea and continued military involvement in eastern Ukraine, Japan felt obligated to support U.S. sanctions on Moscow. That, in turn, poisoned the well of what had been promising signs in Japan-Russia relations. After meeting ten times from 2012 to 2014, Abe and Putin didn’t hold their eleventh meeting until yesterday.
Russia made its displeasure with Japan clear by announcing in June 2015 that it would speed up construction on the disputed islands. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited one of the disputed islands in August, to Japan’s consternation. There has also been a major spike in the number of Russian aircraft flying close to Japanese airspace in the north, sparking a “sharp increase” in the number of times Japanese fighters scrambled to intercept. In an incident earlier this month, a plane believed to be Russian actually violated Japan’s airspace for the first time in two years.
The Abe-Putin meeting reflected some of those tensions. Putin noted some positives in governmental contacts, including a recent visit by Kishida to Moscow. But he also pointedly referenced that “our trade has declined significantly” – an effect of Tokyo joining Washington in placing sanctions on Russia. Putin added, however, that he is “certain that there are good prospects” for economic cooperation.
While Putin focused on expanding economic ties, Abe also made his priorities clear. Having been recently reelected as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, cementing his role as Japan’s prime minister, Abe said he and Putin “have a strong foundation for a calm discussion of the peace agreement issue.”
The big takeaway came in an announcement from Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who said that Putin had accepted an invitation from Abe to visit Japan. That means Putin will finally head to Tokyo, possibly before the end of 2015, after first agreeing to make such a visit in early 2014. Abe and Putin also agreed to meet at other multilateral gatherings, including the G20 summit to be held in Turkey from November 15-16 and the APEC summit scheduled for November 18-19 in Manila.
According to Kyodo News Agency, Abe told Putin that he “would still like to realize a visit to Japan by President Putin at the best time.” But to make that happen, Abe added, “[W]e would like to prepare outcomes in the political area, mainly in peace treaty negotiations, as well as in economic and other areas.”
A Japanese foreign ministry spokesperson told RIA Novosti that Russia and Japan “agreed to move forward negotiations on a peace treaty to find a mutually acceptable solution.” Kishida and Lavrov had already announced an agreement for the two sides to reopen vice-ministerial-level talks on the issue.
However, Russia generally draws a line between the peace treaty negotiations and the territorial issue. “We never discussed [the] northern territories of Japan or Russia,” Lavrov told reporters after his meeting with Kishida in Moscow. “What we discussed today was peace treaty negotiations, a subject to which the heads of the both countries agreed.”