Abe, Putin continue sparring over northern territories solution
In the early morning of June 30, Hangul writing at a jetty construction site jumped out at members of a Japanese public-private survey mission who had arrived at Shikotan Island by ship to research joint economic activities between Japan and Russia in the northern territories.
A South Korean company was joining the jetty construction. "Russia was sending a message that if Japan didn't invest in the northern territories, it could rely on other countries," a person related to the Japanese government said.
Japan and Russia agreed to begin discussing joint economic activities at a summit meeting in December. The idea is a pillar of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "new approach." Announced in May last year, the approach seeks to create an opening in the negotiations over the territorial issue, which have made no progress in the more than 70 years since World War II ended.
Possible candidate industries include tourism and fishing. However, since Russia appears determined to proceed with the talks under the assumption that any activities would be carried out under Russian law, creating a "special system" that harms neither Japan's nor Russia's legal position will likely not be easy.
On July 6, one day before a Japan-Russia summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev, who is in charge of development in the Far East, jolted Japan by announcing that Russia would designate the northern territories as a special economic zone of the Russian government. Companies that expanded their activities there would receive tax benefits and other preferential treatment, which would likely attract foreign businesses.
The move was seen as a "threat" that Russia would move forward on development without Japan if the talks over joint economic activities dragged on.
The next day, Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for the 18th time. The special economic zone was also discussed. Abe decisively told Putin the designation was "unacceptable" because it could harm their plan for joint economic activities. Putin was evasive in his response, and the exchange brought to light a difference between them.
One motivation for resolving the northern territories issue appears to have cooled. At a summit meeting with Putin in May last year, Abe proposed an "eight-point economic cooperation plan" that included energy and development of the Far East. The proposal was intended to lead to a negotiation aimed at resolving the territorial issue.
Abe was enthusiastic as it could lead to a final settlement of the thorny issue of postwar diplomacy. But when Putin visited Abe's home prefecture of Yamaguchi in December for a summit meeting, Abe obtained nothing that would lead to a return of the northern territories.
The international situation is thought to have been a major factor in this. When Russia was isolated internationally after its annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the Russian government is believed to have thought, "By engaging Japan, we can poke a hole in the encirclement led by the United States."
Things changed when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in November. Trump had shown a desire to improve relations with Russia, so "Putin's enthusiasm toward Japan cooled," a source close to the Japan-Russia relationship.
Although U.S.-Russia ties have not improved since Trump took office, Putin has not shown a resurgent willingness to resolve the territorial issues. He has repeatedly expressed concern that if the northern territories were returned, the U.S. military could be deployed there under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
"The vigorous actions by the U.S. military around the Korean Peninsula due to the tensions regarding North Korea appear to have made him nervous," a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
Nevertheless, the Japanese side is holding out hope for a "bold decision" if Putin is re-elected president in March. On July 9, Putin met with former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who was visiting Russia. Putin told his old acquaintance that he is increasingly willing to work with Abe in negotiations to conclude a peace treaty that would include the northern territories issue.
For his part, Abe is facing his biggest crisis since the launch of his second Cabinet. His Liberal Democratic Party suffered a historic defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election and his Cabinet's support rate has plummeted due to criticism over issues like that of the Kake Educational Institution.
Abe appears to think he can use diplomacy to help right the ship, but it could be a difficult task.
On July 8, he posted the following on his Facebook page as if to cheer himself up: "I intend to make progress in negotiating a [Japan-Russia] peace treaty, which has been a pending issue for more than 70 years since the end of World War II. Based on a relationship of deep trust between the leaders, I am resolved to get results one by one."