DIPLOMACY: ANALYSIS
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Shinzo Abe

Shinzo Abe creates new ministerial position to expand cooperation with Russia as he prepares to meet Vladimir Putin

Tokyo hopes to use economic proposals to soften Moscow’s stance on disputed islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and Southern Kurils in Russia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 September, 2016, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 September, 2016, 10:12pm

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday appointed trade minister Hiroshige Seko to a new ministerial role overseeing Japan’s anticipated economic cooperation with Russia.

The move comes on the eve of planned talks between Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of an economic forum in Vladivostok on Friday and Saturday, and reflects Tokyo’s resolve to pursue negotiations with Moscow to conclude a peace treaty that has remained pending since the end of the second world war.

The amount of trade and investment between Japan and Russia is still very low, despite being neighbouring countries
Hiroshige Seko

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told a press conference that the appointment of a minister to handle the field is “necessary to advance Japan’s economic policies [with regard to Russia].”

Seko will be tasked with fleshing out the eight-point economic cooperation proposal Abe presented to Putin at the leaders’ meeting in Sochi, southwestern Russia, in May.

At that meeting, Abe said he and Putin had agreed to proceed with a “new approach” to handling the peace treaty negotiations, which have been held up amid a row over the sovereignty of a chain of Russian-administered islands claimed by Japan. Abe is expected to explain the latest plans when he meets with Putin on Friday.

Tokyo will likely hope to use the economic proposals to soften Moscow’s stance on the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and Southern Kurils in Russia, and bring about a development in the negotiations.

Seko made his ministerial debut in a Cabinet reshuffle last month after serving as deputy chief Cabinet secretary.

“During his time as deputy chief Cabinet secretary, Seko held meetings on Russian diplomacy at the prime minister’s office and coordinated the cooperation plan,” Suga said.

According to a government source, “Seko is well-versed in economic cooperation with Russia, and is an appropriate choice for the job”.

In his former role, Seko formed a team with Shotaro Yachi – a key foreign policy adviser to Abe – and officials from the foreign and finance ministries to consider economic cooperation with Russia following Abe’s presentation of the eight-point plan in Sochi.

Seko and Russian Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukaev met in Tokyo in July to agree to specify the nature of the cooperation, setting the stage for the upcoming leaders’ meeting.

In his new role, Seko is expected to maintain the team with Yachi and the other officials, narrowing down specific cooperation proposals in preparation for Putin’s anticipated talks with Abe in Japan in December.

Speaking to reporters after receiving his appointment from Abe, Seko said the premier told him to strive for the advancement of cooperation with Russia in economic fields.

Japan’s PM Abe hails ‘breakthrough’ in island dispute with Russia as both sides agree to negotiate

“The amount of trade and investment between Japan and Russia is still very low, despite being neighbouring countries and having the potential to accomplish many things if we mutually cooperate on a range of levels,” Seko said.

Seko said he will accompany Abe to the latter’s meeting with Putin in Vladivostok and discuss the future of the cooperation plan with Russian economic officials.

“Not everything in the [eight-point plan] can be accomplished immediately, so we will give shape [to the plan] in order of what can be done,” he said.