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Abe intends to visit Russia again in spring for peace treaty, territorial talks

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Mainichi)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with top military staff in the Russian Defense Ministry's headquarters in Moscow, Russia, on Dec. 18, 2018. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will try to arrange yet another visit to Russia sometime this spring in a bid to create a framework agreement on territorial issues and a peace treaty with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to people familiar with the matter.

The prime minister will work on coordinating the visit during his upcoming meeting with Putin on Jan. 22 in Moscow, where Abe intends to ease Russia's tough stance on Japan's Northern Territories under Moscow control, and select priority issues for negotiations.

The Jan. 22 summit will be the third in three months since November, when they agreed to accelerate talks on a peace treaty based on the 1956 Japan-Russo joint declaration. It will be their 25th since Abe first came to power in 2006 during a previous administration.

Tokyo is considering new moves after a stark difference emerged in a Jan. 14 meeting of Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov over the historic background of the territories. The four islands off the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido were occupied by the Soviet Union and then Russia since the end of World War II in 1945.

The joint declaration stipulates the transfer of the smaller two of the islands -- Habomai and Shikotan -- from Russia to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. Japan wants the two islands returned, and to conduct joint economic activities on the remaining islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri.

However, Lavrov demanded that Kono accept Russia's historic recognition that the Soviet Union, Russia's predecessor, legally obtained sovereignty over the islands following World War II.

Meanwhile, the Abe administration wants to reach a general agreement on a peace treaty with Russia when Putin visits Japan to attend the summit of the group of 20 major countries to be held in the western Japan city of Osaka in June. Prior to the G-20 gathering, the Japanese and Russian foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Germany in February. But an individual close to the prime minister's office said that "at least one more summit (between Abe and Putin) before the G-20 is necessary." Abe plans to suggest visiting Russia sometime in late March or April during his upcoming meeting with Putin.

Moscow, however, appears to be in no hurry concerning the issue. Putin has said that the 1956 declaration does not mention which country would have sovereignty over Habomai and Shikotan. He also expressed concerns about the possibility the United States, a military ally of Japan, would deploy its forces to the returned territories, in an apparent bid to sway Japan closer to Russia's position.

Lavrov and other senior Russian officials have also criticized Japan's plan to deploy the Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense system, and complained that Japan's economic cooperation as "insufficient." Neither issue is directly related to the peace treaty negotiations.

A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official explained that Russia "is trying to take advantage of the opportunity," suggesting an unclear path ahead for Japan.

Abe will leave from Haneda Airport in Tokyo on a special airplane for Moscow on Jan. 21. He will attend the annual general meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and will return on Jan. 24.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama and Yu Koyama, Political News Department)

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