Japan, Russia eye economic pact amid stalemate on territory

TOKYO (AP) — Russia and Japan agreed Friday to hold talks on joint economic development on four islands at the center of a territorial dispute between the countries.

Joint economic development “would help foster trust toward a peace treaty,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a joint news conference after meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The two countries have never signed a peace treaty to end World War II because of the territorial dispute over the islands.

Any talks promise to be difficult as the countries disagree under whose laws such development would occur. Russia controls the islands, but Japan claims sovereignty over them too.

The two leaders held a two-day summit that began Thursday evening at a hot springs resort in western Japan. For Putin, the summit meeting marks his first official visit to a G-7 country since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Abe invited Putin even though the G-7 nations, including Japan, still have sanctions on Russia.

Abe said he and Putin also agreed to start discussing humanitarian steps to allow former Japanese residents of the islands to visit their hometowns freely.

Before the news conference, the two countries exchanged a number of cooperation agreements in different areas.

They have been negotiating the agreements since Abe proposed it as part of a “comprehensive approach” to improving bilateral ties at a meeting with Putin in Sochi, Russia in May.

“Russia and Japan haven’t had very much economic cooperation,” Putin said in opening remarks at Friday’s talks. “It is necessary to expand the potential of our economic ties.”

Abe said the two countries, though neighbors, “have not fully developed their potential” in economic cooperation. He said government and the private sector have been preparing about 60 projects spanning the medical, agricultural, environmental and energy fields.

Russia wants to attract Japanese investment, particularly to its far east. Japan hopes that stronger ties through joint economic projects will help resolve the thorny territorial issue over time.

Putin arrived about 45 minutes behind schedule in Tokyo, because of a mechanical problem with his presidential aircraft. He used a backup plane, according to Japanese media. After a second round of talks, he and Abe are also expected to give speeches to a Japanese business group and visit a judo center in Tokyo. Putin is well-known for practicing judo.

Abe and Putin spent much of their time Thursday discussing small steps to move forward on the territorial dispute that has prevented their countries from signing a peace treaty to end World War II.

Abe said they discussed possible joint economic projects on the disputed islands. A sticking point: Japan says they should be operated under a special legal status that does not raise sovereignty issues. Russia, which governs the islands, wants them to be run under its law.

The territorial dispute centers on four southern Kuril islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories. Japan says the Soviet Union took the islands illegally in the closing days of World War II, expelling 17,000 Japanese to nearby Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands.