Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday called for improving conditions to resolve a decades-old bilateral dispute with Russia over a group of islands and conclude a post-World War II peace treaty, including achieving greater support from both the Japanese and Russian people.
Abe's comments suggested a more time-consuming process and contrasted with Russian President Vladimir Putin's sudden proposal Wednesday, during an economic forum in Vladivostok, that Moscow and Tokyo clinch a peace deal by the end of this year "without any preconditions."
In a meeting with Japanese companies operating in the Russian Far East city, Abe said, "As 70 years have passed (since the end of the war), it is necessary to develop the understanding of Japanese and Russian people and improve the environment to settle these issues." He did not directly respond to Putin's abrupt proposal.
"I am determined to move ahead with the peace treaty issue based on mutual recognition that cooperation between Japan and Russia would produce big results and improve (Russian people's) lives," Abe said. "I am resolved to overcome mutually harbored suspicions and take a step forward."
Abe has in recent years proposed an eight-point economic cooperation package for Russia's Far East region and joint economic activities on the Russian-held, Japan-claimed islands off Hokkaido. The islands are known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia.
The initiatives are aimed at building a level of trust that would lead to settling the territorial row and eventually signing a postwar peace treaty.
In a press conference to conclude the Eastern Economic Forum, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev urged Tokyo to speed up its decision-making process on the planned joint economic projects, saying Moscow has "intentionally delayed" the development of the contested islands.
"Of course, we can develop the Kuril Islands much faster. But we are waiting for the start of the joint activities with Japan," said Trutnev, who doubles as presidential plenipotentiary envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, the area that covers the disputed islets.
After talks with Putin on Monday, Abe said the two leaders approved a "road map" to realize the joint economic activities in five areas, including aquaculture and tourism, without providing the timing or other details.
As an idea that "has just come to my mind," Putin urged Abe on Wednesday to clinch a peace pact first and then continue negotiations over the islands off Hokkaido controlled by Moscow but claimed by Tokyo.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the Japanese government took Putin's remarks as his "strong desire to conclude a peace treaty and develop Japan-Russia ties."
The top government spokesman said at a press conference that Japan's position of seeking to resolve the issue of the islands' sovereignty before concluding a peace treaty with Russia remains unchanged.
After returning from Vladivostok, Abe echoed the spokesman's view on Putin's remarks. In a meeting at the prime minister's office with Natsuo Yamaguchi, who heads Komeito, a partner in the ruling coalition, Abe said there will be no change in the government's "basic" stance.
Russia and Japan have not signed a peace pact due to the row over Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, which were seized by the Soviet Union in the days after Japan surrendered in August 1945, ending World War II.
On his four-day visit to Vladivostok through Thursday, Abe attended the annual regional economic forum and held bilateral summits with Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.