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Putin's proposal for peace treaty with Japan shaking Tokyo as territorial issue remains

From left, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 12, 2018. (Pool photo)(Kyodo)

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia/TOKYO -- An abrupt proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Moscow and Tokyo sign a peace treaty without preconditions by the end of the year has sent Japanese government officials scrambling to minimize potential damage from the remark.

The proposal, made during an Eastern Economic Forum session in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East on Sept. 12, is perceived as opposing Japan's current position on the Northern Territories off the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. The territories including four main islands have been under Russian control since their occupation by the Soviet Union at the end of the World War II. The Abe administration first wants the islands returned before signing any peace treaty with Russia.

It is not clear what President Putin really meant by the proposal. One possibility is that it is a diplomatic jab intended to extract more economic concessions from Japan in connection with the ongoing negotiations over the return of those islands. The Abe administration has proposed economic cooperation to advance the issue of a peace treaty, but a Russian government official once complained the level of cooperation was unsatisfactory.

"The president may express his dissatisfaction in the next Vladivostok forum if this is all the economic cooperation Japan can offer," the official said, adding that Japan should take part in infrastructure and oil field development on top of the medical or urban development projects Tokyo had proposed. Yuri Ushakov, Putin's diplomatic aide, emphasized before the Japan-Russia summit on Sept. 10 that the two countries must expand their relationship to sign a peace treaty.

The second possibility is that Putin really meant it -- sign a peace treaty first, place the territorial issue on the back burner for the time being, and effectively settle the issue.

Some Russian officials refer to the precedent of a territorial settlement Moscow reached with Beijing, which took 40 years to be completed, when talking about negotiation with Japan over peace treaty talks. In that case, Russia and China first signed a treaty of neighborly friendship in 2001, three years before a settlement, and this arrangement helped build mutual trust and advance the territorial talks, say experts. Similar steps should be taken toward Japan, those Russian officials suggest.

Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Sept. 12 that the process of territorial settlement sometimes takes decades to run its course.

In response to Putin's proposal, Abe administration officials have been bent on diluting the image that the territorial negotiations with Russia have hit a dead end.

Abe is in the middle of seeking a third consecutive term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and he apparently intended to publicize his latest visit to Russia and meeting with Putin as a diplomatic achievement to help solidify his base. But the Russian leader's sudden talk of a peace treaty dealt Abe a blow, as he was pushed into a diplomatic corner and unable to respond. Japanese Communist Party chief Kazuo Shii attacked the development as a "major diplomatic debacle."

Prime Minister Abe came back to Japan from Vladivostok on the afternoon of Sept. 13 and told Natsuo Yamaguchi, who heads ruling coalition partner Komeito, that he perceived Putin's proposal as an indication that the Russian president is eager to sign a peace treaty, giving a positive spin to the overture.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who did not hide his irritation with Putin during a Sept. 12 press conference, switched gears the next day when he told reporters that the Russian leader made the remark because "he has strong feelings regarding the advancement of the Japan-Russia relationship." On the same day, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in Hanoi, Vietnam, that what Putin had said was "nothing to complain about."

For Abe, settling the dispute with Russia over the Northern Territories and signing a peace treaty are two of the main diplomatic goals for his next term as LDP leader. And Putin seemed to understand very well when he made his latest speech on a possible treaty that it was Abe's position that the territorial issue comes first, and this perception triggered some angry reactions inside the Japanese government.

Such anger and dissatisfaction are being contained now because Tokyo fears that expressing such reactions may be used by Moscow to slow down the territorial and related negotiations.

To build trust, Japan has proposed joint economic activities with Russia in the Northern Territories, but a "special system" shelving the issue of sovereignty, which Japan deems necessary for such economic cooperation, is not getting any traction in Moscow. The Japanese government explained that the two sides agreed on "road maps" for five areas of economic activity, but those road maps were not made public, and it is not clear how joint economic activities are proceeding.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry intends to seek an explanation about Putin's remark from Russia. Abe and Putin are scheduled to see each other at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in November, and the premier may ask questions directly to Putin in a bilateral meeting.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Omae, Moscow Bureau, and Yutaka Koyama, Political News Department)

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