Japan to host high-level meeting with Russian ministers
Tokyo and Moscow officials sidle up for a rare 2+2 meeting amid mounting tension with China
Tokyo will play host to the foreign and defence ministers of Russia from today, the latest stage of a burgeoning relationship that represents a rare neighbourly gesture for Japan.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu will meet their Japanese counterparts Fumio Kishida and Itsunori Onodera in Tokyo in a so-called "2+2", something that Japan has only ever done before with the US and Australia.
The visit comes after four separate summit talks between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past six months, an unusual frequency for such high-level exchanges.
In their one-on-one meeting, Lavrov and Kishida are expected to discuss a decades-old territorial row that has prevented the two countries signing a peace treaty after the second world war.
The following day, the 2+2 will touch on ways to strengthen security co-operation, a Japanese foreign ministry official said.
The meeting "is expected to have an indirect, but positive impact on future talks towards a peace treaty, by building trust between the countries", he said.
Despite an important commercial relationship, which includes a growing trade in fossil fuels, Tokyo and Moscow remain at odds over the sovereignty of islands north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
The islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, but Russia administers as the Southern Kurils, were occupied by Soviet troops in the dying days of the second world war.
The small Japanese population was evicted and Soviets moved into the archipelago as part of a drive to consolidate control over its wild east. They remain under-developed, but harbour rich fishing reserves.
"We've seen President Putin's enthusiasm towards improving ties with Japan, but it doesn't necessarily mean that Russia is ready to make a compromise on the territorial issue," the official said.
Relatively warm relations with Russia stand in marked contrast with Japan's ties with China and South Korea.
Tokyo is embroiled in a bitter dispute with Beijing over the ownership of the Daioyu Islands in the East China Sea, which Japan calls the Senkakus.
The row took a sharp turn for the worse last week when Beijing said that Tokyo's reported plan to shoot down drones encroaching on Japanese airspace would be "an act of war". Japan parried with accusations that China was endangering peace in the region.
A pair of sparsely populated islets between Japan and the Korean peninsula are the focus of a separate squabble between Tokyo and Seoul. While the disputes are nominally territorial, they are fanned by historical differences and growing nationalism.