TOKYO – Japan and Russia agreed Monday to step up work toward resolving a longstanding territorial dispute through cooperation in a range of areas.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, also joined in urging North Korea to refrain from “provocative actions” and to abide by United Nations resolutions demanding an end to its nuclear and missile testing.
The call came in “two-plus-two” talks among foreign and defense ministers in Tokyo that touched on a wide array of issues, including the conflict in Syria, drug trafficking, and logistics for travel by elderly Japanese back to disputed islands that have been under Russian control since the end of World War II.
The meetings in Tokyo were the two countries’ first “two-plus-two” talks since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to visit Russia in late April and again in September, as the two sides haggle over how to narrow differences in the territorial dispute that has prevented them from reaching a peace treaty officially ending their World War II hostilities.
But while the talks appeared cordial and the tone was constructive, tensions remain.
Earlier this month, North Korea fired four missiles, of which three landed in waters that Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone.
Russia views missile defense systems the U.S., Japan’s main ally, is deploying in northeast Asia as a threat to regional security, Lavrov said following the talks.
The U.S. and South Korea have agreed to install an advanced anti-missile system as a defense against North Korea. The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, has angered both Russia and China. Russia also objects to U.S. missile defense systems in Japan.
“The U.S. global ballistic missile defense poses a deep risk to the security of the region,” Lavrov said. He said it was crucial to avoid upsetting the balance in the region and setting off an even greater arms buildup that could lead North Korea to step up its own military expansion.
Lavrov said the installation of the THAAD system was “a response completely out of proportion” to the threat from North Korea. He accused the U.S. of “pumping arms into the region,” and called for approaches that might encourage North Korea to engage in dialogue with its neighbors.
Lavrov met with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held talks with his Japanese counterpart, Tomomi Inada. The four ministers then held combined talks on international and bilateral issues.
“Based on the talks today, we hope to firmly work toward developing Japan-Russian cooperation in various areas,” Kishida said afterward.
Japan and Russia last held “two-plus-two” talks in November 2013. Meetings were shelved after that due to the crisis in Ukraine, as Japan joined sanctions against Moscow.
As expected, the Tokyo talks did not yield a breakthrough on the conflicting Russian and Japanese claims to islands just north of Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido – Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets – that came under Russian control in the closing weeks of World War II.
But the countries discussed possible visa-free travel between Hokkaido and the area. They also are working toward joint development of fisheries, tourism and other areas that might help bridge the gap.
“I believe this joint development will become an important step to create an appropriate environment for resolving a peace treaty,” Lavrov told reporters.
Russia has been eager to enlist Japanese help with development of energy and other industries in its Far East.
But while Monday’s talks yielded an agreement to keep talking, Japan has concerns over Russia’s installment of surface-to-ship missiles on Etorofu and other military activity elsewhere on the disputed islands.
Disputes between Japan and Russia over territory date beyond World War II to the 19th century, when the Russian and Japanese empires fought for domination of northeastern China, then known as Manchuria, and the Korean Peninsula.
Japan’s victory in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war hobbled Russia’s expansion in the Far East and was the first significant triumph of an Asian country over a European power. A treaty brokered by the U.S. enabled Tokyo to claim territories that were later regained by Moscow after Japan’s World War II defeat in 1945.