Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed yesterday to step up the pace of talks to end a decades-old territorial dispute, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
The two leaders met face-to-face on the sidelines of the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore. Both countries are seeking to try to end a thorny territorial row that has dogged relations since the end of World War II. The dispute between Russia and Japan centers on four islands in the strategically-located Kuril chain which the Soviet Union occupied at the end of the war in 1945 but are claimed by Japan. It has kept the two countries from signing a peace accord that would formally end their wartime hostilities.
Putin first suggested the two countries sign a peace treaty "without any preconditions" in September. The proposal was initially received coolly in Japan, where a government spokesman said the two countries should first resolve the dispute before signing a peace deal. But in recent months, diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue appear to have accelerated, at least to the point where Japan is willing to discuss what a treaty might look like.
Historically, Japan insists the islands, which were once inhabited by the Ainu indigenous people, have never belonged to anyone else. Russia considers them spoils of war as agreed between then U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1945. Strategically, control of the islands gives Russia year-round access to the Pacific Ocean for its Pacific fleet of warships and submarines based in Vladivostok, as the surrounding water does not freeze in winter.