Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bunkered down for talks Thursday to try and resolve a territorial dispute that has prevented their countries from formally ending World War II hostilities.
Abe is hosting Putin at a hot spring summit in his ancestral city of Nagato in the hopes of achieving a breakthrough over the territory off Japan’s northern coast seized by Soviet troops in 1945.
The four islands are known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, and the dispute has been a thorn in relations for more than seven decades.
Abe would like to seal a deal as soon as possible because the islands’ ageing Japanese former residents are dwindling in number.
Despite months of preparation, however, the outlook is not good, with both sides recently damping down expectations of major progress.
The two leaders shook hands before sitting down for their first meeting during the two days of talks, with Abe welcoming Putin to his hometown.
“I think the summit today and tomorrow will bring a big contribution to the development of ties,” Putin said.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Putin and Abe had dismissed aides and went into “one-on_one discussions” to try and make progress on the issue of negotiating a peace treaty.
Japanese media said that the two leaders were meeting with only interpreters present.
Lavrov also said that Putin suggested the two countries re-establish meetings between their defence ministers.
“The prime minister responded positively” to the suggestion, Lavrov said.
Putin, a judoist who is making his first visit to Japan as president in 11 years, has said he wants to end the “anachronism” of the two countries not having a World War II peace treaty.
“But how to do this is a difficult question,” he told Japanese media before his arrival.
Underscoring the intense interest in the meeting in Japan, Putin’s arrival at the airport in the city of Ube, about three hours later than originally anticipated, was shown live on television.
The summit is the latest attempt to draw a line under World War II since Japan and the Soviet Union began discussions in 1956.
Abe’s late father Shintaro took the lead in negotiations with Moscow as a foreign minister but died in 1991 after pushing for talks while suffering from cancer.
In Nagato, Abe and Putin are expected to focus on territorial and peace treaty issues, a Japanese foreign ministry official said.
Lavrov also said that Abe and Putin also discussed Asia-Pacific security issues and Russian concerns over the US military presence, which he said Moscow saw as “disproportionate” to North Korea’s missile threat.
The two leaders will leave the hot spring resort and travel to Tokyo on Friday for more talks and a joint press appearance before attending an economic forum.
Abe has looked to eke out concessions by dangling the prospect of major Japanese investment in front of Moscow, which is mired in economic crisis.
But few believe Putin is likely to cave to Japanese demands to hand back at least some control over the islands, especially after Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States last month.
The New York real-estate baron has vowed to improve ties with Russia, where the economy has reeled under US sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine and the impact of falling oil prices.