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Abe loses momentum toward resolving territorial row after talks with Putin

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed reservations about the prospects of settling the Northern Territories dispute with Russia after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Lima on Nov. 19 local time, making a turnaround from his earlier confidence about resolving the row.

"A (Japan-Russia) peace treaty hasn't been concluded for 70 years, and it is not such a simple task. We will need to cross a mountain step by step," a grim-looking Abe told reporters after his talks with Putin in the Peruvian capital.

Abe's change of tone was apparently affected by the emerging gaps between Tokyo and Moscow in their approaches toward the territorial dispute over the Russian-held, Japan-claimed four islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu off Hokkaido. Observers say the recent election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president is also impacting Japan-Russia relations as he is taking a reconciliatory stance toward Russia.

While expectations are growing for Abe and Putin to make progress in their territorial talks in their upcoming meeting scheduled for Dec. 15, Abe's somber attitude after the Nov. 19 bilateral talks came in contrast to the confident smiles he showed in the past two post-talk media conferences, in which he stressed favorable results from his meetings with Putin.

At the Abe-Putin meeting in May in the southern Russian resort of Sochi, Abe proposed that the two countries advance negotiations with a "new approach." He presented an eight-point economic cooperation program, in which Putin showed great interest. After the talks, Abe said, "I was able to get a good response that can lead to a breakthrough in the stalled talks."

Following another round of Abe-Putin talks in Vladivostok in September, Abe showed confidence in pushing the territorial talks forward, saying, "We've been able to find our path toward advancing substantive negotiations based on a new approach. I could keenly sense a good response to it."

Abe's positive remarks had raised expectations toward the settlement of the territorial row among concerned parties. His about-face after the Nov. 19 talks, in which he maintained reservations without using the term "a good response" as he did in the past two post-talk media interviews, is apparently because Putin took a tougher stance than expected and prompted Abe to think it better to lower expectations ahead of their December meeting.

On Nov. 20, Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters in Saga, "I'm not optimistic that everything will move forward all at once. I'm sure there will be good results, but I don't think they'll be perfect ones." A former Cabinet member close to the prime minister said, "It's a tough subject that hasn't seen a resolution over the past 70 years. The prime minister doesn't need to rush to produce results in December but will need to get results while in office."

Abe has placed importance on building a personal relationship of trust with Putin as the Japanese prime minister believes things will not move forward unless the Russian president gives the order. At the same time, Abe has told Putin that Tokyo is ready to cooperate with Moscow over medical care, urban development and other areas to foster mutual trust, and has strived to improve the environment to that end.

It may be premature to judge how much of these negotiation efforts have proved effective, but there is growing awareness among Japanese government officials that Russia will adamantly keep its hard-line stance toward the territorial issue. Some opposition party members are beginning to be wary of the government's policy, with Democratic Party Secretary-General Yoshihiko Noda remarking, "I wonder if Russia would only 'cherry-pick' our economic cooperation plan with the country."

U.S. President-elect Trump's reconciliatory posture toward Russia has also raised uncertainties in Japan-Russia relations. Itsuro Nakamura, a professor at the University of Tsukuba who is specialized in Russian politics, commented, "The stronger U.S.-Russia ties grow, the more likely Japan will be left behind. The biggest reason behind Putin's stiffer stance toward Japan in the latest talks (with Abe) may be that Putin places his expectations on improving Russia-U.S. relations."

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