Abe, Putin weigh win-win options to end decades-old island row

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 4:31pm

If recent statements by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin are any indication, Japan and Russia may be moving closer to resolving a seven-decade-old row over four disputed islands.

During his two spells as prime minister dating back to 2006, Abe has held 14 meetings with the Russian president to press his case for a resolution and make progress toward signing a peace treaty to balance chilly ties with China. To sweeten the deal, Japan is offering economic aid to Russia, which is struggling to climb out of a recession.

We must resolve this during our own generation ... we should proceed with negotiations with a sense of responsibility, on the basis of a strong determination to resolve this in our own times
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

“We must resolve this during our own generation,” Abe told parliament on Monday of his most recent talks with the Russian leader last month. “I told Putin that we should proceed with negotiations with a sense of responsibility, on the basis of a strong determination to resolve this in our own times. Basically, I think President Putin agreed with this.”

‘Let’s end this abnormal situation’: Abe calls for ‘new epoch’ in Russia-Japan ties hit by second world war territorial dispute

In a Bloomberg interview in September, Putin said that resolving the conflict over the islands occupied by the Soviet Union in the final days of the second world war should be part of setting the stage for the long-term development of relations with Japan. “We’re not talking about some exchange or some sale,” Putin said. “We are talking about finding a solution where neither of the parties would feel defeated or a loser.”

The two leaders are set to meet again at an international summit in Peru next month, and the Russian president is scheduled to visit Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi in December. Some kind of deal in the next few months may provide Abe with political capital to call a general election early next year.

Here are some potential outcomes:

Return of all four islands

The Soviet Union invaded the islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu at the end of the war, expelling all 17,000 Japanese residents. Japan’s official position is that the islands are an inherent part of its territory and are under illegal occupation. Putin has little incentive to yield to this view as the islands are inhabited by Russians. The area is also home to rich fishing grounds.

The ‘two-plus’ option

Japan rejected an offer for only the two smaller islands in 1956, when it signed a declaration establishing diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union. To avoid losing face, Japan would now need an extra element to conclude an agreement.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s top government spokesman, on Monday denied a Nikkei newspaper report that Japan was considering seeking joint administration of the two larger islands, in addition to return of the smaller pair. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday called the reports “information injections,“ adding that consultations were “difficult” and proceeding quietly.

“Abe clearly has an idea that he knows he can’t get four, so instead he’s pushing for two ‘plus,’” said James Brown, associate political science professor at Temple University’s Japan campus who published a book on the territorial dispute in March. “The question is what can the ‘plus’ be? There’s a real uncertainty and they seem to be fishing around for ideas. My view of this is that it’s a sign of how far apart the sides remain.”

Expansion of visa-free travel

If no substantial progress is made on resolving the island dispute, the two leaders still need to make an announcement in December to avoid embarrassment, according to Temple University’s Brown.

Abe referred in parliament this week to the advanced age of the surviving islanders and their wish to travel freely to their former homes. While limited visa-free travel is already allowed, the arrangement could be expanded and made reciprocal to allow more Russian visitors to Japan. This would be a small return for the years of effort Abe has put into the relationship, but wouldn’t close the door on further progress down the road.

Syrian wild card

Abe’s efforts to deepen ties with Putin were interrupted in 2014 by Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and Japan’s subsequent need to fall in line with US sanctions. Now Japan’s most important ally, the US, is considering fresh sanctions on Russia over the bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo, potentially exposing Japan to criticism if Abe doesn’t follow suit.