Abe seeks progress in Russian relations in anniversary year

Abe seeks progress in Russian relations in anniversary year
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a meeting in Moscow on April 29, 2013.
PHOTO: AFP

One focus of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's diplomacy is to make progress in Japan's relations with Russia this year, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Abe hopes to ensure that Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Japan this year. By doing so, the prime minister wants to pave the way to resolving the dispute over four northern territories, the greatest outstanding issue facing our nation in connection to the end of the war.

So-called "Abe diplomacy" has entered the latter part of this year as a milestone in this nation's postwar history. During the first part of 2015, the prime minister achieved a certain measure of success in strengthening the Japan-US alliance. He hopes to improve relations with China and South Korea in the latter half. However, his statement- yet to be released - marking the 70th anniversary of the war's end could antagonize those nations.

South Korea remains unmoved in its insistence that progress be made toward settling the comfort women issue before summit talks take place. Japanese government officials believe the current stalemate will be broken if three-way summit talks among Japan, China and South Korea can be held.

South Korea is to be the host nation for the Japan-China-South Korea trilateral summit. As a matter of diplomatic courtesy, host nations cannot avoid inviting participating nations to the summit, as well as holding individual bilateral meetings. This effectively means that "Japan and South Korea will be able to hold talks while putting the issue of comfort women to the side for the time being," according to a senior Foreign Ministry official.

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There is also the potential fo top-level discussions between Japan and China to be held at the same time.

One option the government has kept on the table, based on relations with China, is a visit by the prime minister to China timed with a ceremony - which China claims is an event to commemorate "the 70th anniversary of the country's victory in the war of resistance against Japan" - to be held in Beijing on Sept. 3.

The ceremony is expected to be held shortly after Abe issues a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. "If [Abe] visits China around that time and has a summit meeting, it would be a symbolic move toward an improvement in relations," a government source said.

Some within the Foreign Ministry have expressed the need to be cautious, as a military parade is scheduled to be held during the ceremony. One high-ranking official said, "One possible approach is not to attend the ceremony."

For the prime minister, the most crucial focal point for the second half of this year is likely to be making progress in Japan-Russia relations. Even as the United States and European nations have become increasingly wary of Russia over Ukraine, the Abe administration has been carefully seeking out opportunities to make contact with Putin while maintaining a stance aligned with the implementation of economic sanctions against Russia.

As part of such attempts, the administration was considering the possibility of holding an Abe-Putin meeting in Kazakhstan during Abe's visit to Central Asian nations previously planned for late August. However, the prime minister shifted to seeking a visit by Putin to Japan by the end of this year. Abe has given up his plan to visit Central Asian nations, due to the significant extension of the current Diet session through Sept. 27.

Russia has sent signals to Japan as well.

"It's possible to solve any problems," Putin was quoted as telling executives of foreign news agencies on June 19, in connection with the northern territories, indicating his willingness to hold talks with Abe.

Within the Japanese government, one high-level official said: "Progress in talks with Russia only comes when it is isolated from the international community and is experiencing economic distress. As a certain level of trust between the heads of both nations exists, now is truly good timing."

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