Putin Seeks End to ‘Ping Pong’ With Japan Over Disputed Islands

  • Cooperation plans to be governed by Russian law, Kremlin says
  • Russia, Japan to form separate $1 billion investment fund

Putin, Abe Order Joint Economic Action Plan

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that his nation’s tussle with Japan over the sovereignty of disputed islands must come to an end, and agreed with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to start talks on a special system for economic cooperation in the area.

“This historical ping pong over these territories should stop,” Putin said at a joint news conference in Tokyo after a working lunch with Abe. “There is a need to understand, finally, that fundamental interests of Japan and Russia demand a conclusive and long-term settlement.”

Abe said that the pair’s five hours of talks the previous day at a hot-spring resort near his ancestral home in southwest Japan enabled them to show their determination to solve the dispute, which has prevented the two countries from signing an official peace treaty for seven decades.

“We’ve been able to take a big step forward,” Abe said. “The path to resolution is still a difficult one. It is a problem that has not been solved in 70 years and for much of that time there wasn’t even any negotiation on it.”

Putin said that Russia’s stance on the islands remained firm because of concerns over Japan’s security alliance with the U.S. While President-elect Donald Trump is seen as friendlier to Russia, relations between Moscow and Washington remain frayed over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

“Our ocean zone ships sail out to the Pacific and we must understand what will happen in this sphere,” Putin said, noting that Russia has two major naval bases in the area. “When we talk about flexibility we want our Japanese colleagues and friends to take all these details and concerns into account.”

The 16th summit between the pair came at a crucial time for both countries. Russia has been starved for investment and trade amid low oil prices, and international sanctions over its actions in Ukraine. Japan is on a quest to diversify energy sources, with its nuclear power industry hobbled by the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Ministers from both nations earlier exchanged a raft of business agreements. The joint plans for economic cooperation on the islands, in areas such as include medicine, tourism and fisheries, will be implemented on the basis of Russian legislation because the islands belong to Russia, Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters after the talks Thursday.

The deals made on Friday included a $1 billion joint fund to invest in Russian projects including energy and infrastructure over the next three to five years. Another 12 state-level agreements and 68 private deals were made during the summit. The deals involved companies include Novatek PJSC, Rosneft PJSC, Gazprom PJSC on the Russian side, and Mitsui & Co., Marubeni Corp. and Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. in Japan.

Hot Springs

Japanese investment in Russia rose by 51 percent in 2015, even as total foreign investment fell by more than 70 percent.

At the beginning of their discussions Thursday, Abe said he hoped Putin could relieve his fatigue by taking a soak in the hot spring. Putin thanked Abe, and said he hoped their meetings will contribute to the development of relations.

Japan and Russia have sparred over the sovereignty of the four islands that the Soviet Union invaded at the end of World War II, expelling all 17,000 Japanese residents. Japan’s official position is that the islands -- home to rich fishing grounds -- are an inherent part of its territory and are under illegal occupation.

“We talked about freedom for the former islanders to visit their former homes,” Abe said, adding that he’d handed Putin letters from some of them, including one written in Russian. “Joint economic activity on the four islands will not prejudice our country’s stance on the peace treaty problem.”