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Editorial: Abe-Putin talks disappoint with no progress on territorial dispute

The two-day summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin has dashed our hopes that repeated talks would move the Northern Territories issue forward and only left us to ponder the harsh reality of the situation.

Putin visited Japan at the invitation of Abe and the two held talks in Nagato, a city in Abe's home prefecture of Yamaguchi, and Tokyo. The meeting marked the 16th of its kind between the two leaders, an unusually high frequency.

However, negotiations over the Russian-held, Japanese-claimed four islands off Hokkaido failed to make any progress. As Abe had emphasized that he got a good response about making a breakthrough in the territorial row after his meetings with Putin in the Russian resort of Sochi in May and in Vladivostok in September, there were high hopes that the latest summit would be historic. The sense of disappointment over the outcome of the latest bilateral meeting is all the more deep because of such expectations.

The two leaders agreed to launch negotiations over a special system for conducting joint economic activities on the four disputed islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu. Abe described the agreement as a "crucial step forward toward a peace treaty" between the two countries.

However, the accord is just preparation of the environment for starting the negotiations. It just lays the groundwork for promoting peace treaty negotiations alongside the eight-point economic cooperation plan that Abe proposed to Putin in May. It rather appears that a new bar has been set along the path toward the solution of the territorial row.

The aforementioned special system refers to arrangements in which Japanese people can engage in activities without being bound by Russian legal systems so that Japan's legal position that the four islands are "an inherent part of the territory of Japan" would not be infringed upon.

There are past examples we can consider following. The 1998 agreement between Japan and Russia opened the way for Japanese fishing boats to operate in waters surrounding the Northern Territories. The accord has been in place on condition that both countries would not violate the other's legal status by effectively shelving the issue of jurisdiction over the surrounding waters.

If this kind of arrangement could be applied to activities on shore, Japan and Russia may be able to open up a new possibility for bilateral cooperation and boost Japan's presence on the four islands.

However, it is not easy to design a system in which both countries would not violate the other's sovereignty in terms of police authority, court jurisdiction and the right to tax companies in cases where problems arise.

The possibility of joint economic activities in the Northern Territories has come under review time and again since Russia proposed it in the 1990s, but discussions never progressed due to the sovereignty issue. If the coming talks over joint economic activities are stalled, that could also hinder progress on territorial negotiations.

It is said that there were two opportunities for Japan and Russia to resolve the territorial dispute since negotiations were resumed following the end of the Cold War owing largely to the relationships of trust between the then leaders of the two countries.

The first opportunity came during the reigns of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. They apparently got along well when they held talks in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, in 1997 and then at Kawana hot spring resort in Ito, Shizuoka Prefecture, the following year. Japan reportedly proposed during the Kawana meeting that it would accept Russia's administrative right over the Northern Territories for the time being after a border was demarcated north of Etorofu Island, but Russia declined the proposal. Yeltsin subsequently developed health problems and stepped down.

The second opportunity came between 2000 and 2001, when Putin, fresh from assuming the Russian presidency, officially recognized the validity of the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, in which Russia agreed to hand over the islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty. Then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori proposed having discussions on the return of the two islands to Japan alongside the fate of the remaining islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu. However, there was a strong backlash in Japan from those who were wary of a possible settlement of the territorial issue by having only two of the four islands returned to Japan. It didn't take long before Prime Minister Mori resigned.

Prime Minister Abe apparently aspired to seize what he hoped would have been the third opportunity for the two countries to settle the territorial row by building a personal relationship of trust with Putin. Unlike the past two opportunities, both leaders enjoy solid foundations for their respective governments. Abe's efforts to resolve the territorial issue by holding talks with Putin on numerous occasions merit credit.

However, Japan's basis for territorial negotiations seems to have suffered a major setback, from the initial return of the four islands to Japan, to then two islands, to effectively "zero" in the latest meeting.

Japan should also take heed to the fact that Moscow is making more requests for Tokyo's diplomatic moves by capitalizing on the Abe administration's enthusiasm toward territorial talks.

At a press conference following the recent bilateral meeting in Japan, Putin signaled his intention to entangle the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in the peace treaty negotiations between Japan and Russia. Even if Russia were to hand over the disputed islands to Japan, Russia apparently aims to have them exempted from the Japan-U.S. security arrangement. In that case, Japan would be forced to initiate negotiations with the United States, making the territorial talks even more complicated.

Furthermore, Putin pointed out during an interview with the Japanese media ahead of his visit to Japan that Russia's ties with Japan are not as strong as Russia-China relations due to Japan's participation in anti-Russia sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. Putin appears to have attempted to press Japan into breaking away from the anti-Russia sanctions after perceiving Abe's strategy of keeping China in check by strengthening Japan-Russia relations.

The U.S. administration is in the midst of transition from one led by President Barack Obama, who initiated the introduction of international sanctions against Russia, to one led by President-elect Donald Trump, who advocates cooperation with Russia. Trump's appointment of Exxon Mobil Corp. Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson as the next U.S. Secretary of State also provides a boost to Russia as Tillerson has close ties with Moscow.

Russia has likely begun reviewing its policy toward Japan in the face of the coming change of government in the United States. The Abe administration is faced with the need to drastically review its foreign policy to determine how to proceed with territorial talks with Moscow.

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