Putin exits onsen drama holding all the cards


The summit talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not end in hikiwake, or a draw, as Putin once phrased it.

Abe scored no tangible points in a diplomatic judo match over the sovereignty of the four disputed islands off Hokkaido, and the leaders only agreed to start talks on holding joint economic activities on them.

Despite Abe’s clear enthusiasm for tackling the issue, there were already signs that little progress would be made on signing a peace treaty that hinges on the dispute.

The only clear results emerged in the joint economic projects, which were actually nothing new.

Late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to set up a committee to discuss such a framework in 1998. But no projects ever materialized due to unbridgeable gaps over which side’s jurisdiction should prevail.

“The summit this time delivered absolutely nothing for Japan. There is not anything really substantial at all,” said James D. Brown, an associate professor at Temple University’s Japan campus who specializes in Russian foreign policy. “This agreement is to talk about the new framework . . . I do not think these talks will progress anywhere . . . as it is very difficult to sort the legal issues.”

The joint declaration issued Friday said only that the two countries will negotiate the legal mechanisms needed for holding joint economic activities, and that such agreements would not harm the political positions of the two countries. The issue of jurisdiction is important as it is intertwined with the issue of sovereignty.

Yet Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov on Thursday, in comments made before the Tokyo agreement was announced, said joint economic activities will be conducted under the Russian legal system, according to Russian news agency TASS.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Friday said that Japan’s position should not be violated.

Still, the two leaders apparently left open the possibility of shelving the most challenging sovereignty issues. Abe said that the two countries should not dwell on the past, but seek a future-oriented way of thinking.

“That approach is the only way to the final result,” said Abe at the joint news conference after the talks.

Putin agreed that creating the special mechanism for economic activities will be an important element in the final decision on the issue.

“We need to enhance our economic relations while working on the peace treaty issue,” said Putin. “After all, it is most important to conclude the peace treaty.”

Even if the talks make progress, the two sides have other pending issues, especially on security. Putin  expressed his displeasure about the idea that the U.S.-Japan security alliance could potentially cover the disputed islands.

“I would like you to take our concerns into consideration,” Putin said.

Despite criticism that it was Russian that gained from the talks — the economic cooperation based on Abe’s eight-point plan is said to total about ¥300 billion — some experts said that making a breakthrough was not Abe’s goal this time, despite rhetoric to the contrary.

Abe raised expectations for a breakthrough in May when he announced a “new approach” in the long-stalled peace treaty negotiations when he went to visit Putin in the southern Russian city of Sochi. Yet he toned down that talk in November after summit talks with Putin on the sidelines of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

“The talks served as a process to forge trust between the two countries, in order to sit at the negotiation table,” said Taisuke Abiru, a Tokyo Foundation research fellow specializing in Russian politics. “In a way, they just enter the dojo, but it was a good start.”

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