Jan 22, 2019 08:02 UTC
  • Japan’s Abe heads to Russia to discuss disputed islands with Putin

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday over a group of Pacific islands claimed by both sides, amid low hope for a solution to the decades-old dispute.

Abe’s visit, which marks the 25th time he and Putin have met since 2013, is part of their efforts to build cooperation despite their disagreement over the islands, which are known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan.

The Kuril Islands lie less than 10 kilometers from Japan’s Hokkaido, consisting of Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan, and Habomai. Three are inhabited, while Habomai is a group of islets with only the presence of a border patrol.

The strategic islands were taken over by the Soviet army in the final days of World War II. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the four islands were incorporated into Russia but Japan continues to lay claims to the islands.

According to a joint declaration signed in 1956, the former Soviet Union agreed to return two of the islands provided that a bilateral peace treaty is signed, while Japan refused to sign such an agreement, insisting on the return of all four islands.

Despite a flurry of diplomacy since November last year, when the two leaders agreed to increase efforts to finally sign a treaty ending the territorial dispute over the islands, recent remarks from both sides suggest a compromise is still far away.

During a New Year’s address, Abe angered Moscow when he said Russians living on the islands should “accept and understand that the sovereignty of their homes will change.”

Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Japan must recognize Russian sovereignty over the islands to get the talks moving.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday further cooled hopes for a quick resolution, saying the peace talks were “in their initial stage” and would likely be a “drawn-out” process.

Before his departure, Abe acknowledged that “negotiations with Russia have been a challenge for more than 70 years” and hoped there would be “candid talks” with the Russian leader.

But the two leaders have demonstrated a good personal relationship since Abe’s historic first trip to Moscow in 2013.

Abe said in an interview published Monday by the Russian daily Kommersant that he and Putin have fully agreed to resolve the conflict “with our own hands and not pass the problem on to future generations.”

MG

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