Signs of Progress in Sochi? Abe-Putin Summit Points to Economic Cooperation, Territorial Resolution


On May 6, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian resort town of Sochi. At a closely watched meeting described by US President Barack Obama as a potential threat to G7 unity, the leaders discussed economic ties and the question of the Russia-occupied Northern Territories. Russian affairs and intelligence specialist Satō Masaru gives his take on the summit and what it could hint at.

On May 6, following a summit meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and Russian President Vladimir Putin held in the Russian resort town of Sochi, it became clear that the two leaders had made a significant leap forward in their personal relationship. Japan’s “comprehensive approach” to ties with Moscow, encompassing economic cooperation as well as political dialogue, appears to have struck a chord with the Russian leader.

This comprehensive tack might be better described as a “bundled sales approach,” or with the Russian term prazdničnyj nabor, meaning celebratory goods sold as a set. This set has been filled with plenty of the economic benefits the Russians are hoping for, along with a proposal to resolve the question of the Russian-held Northern Territories. The aim is to get Russia to accept the entire package.

Prime Minister Abe’s eight-point economic cooperation proposal includes actions in the following fields:

  1. Cooperation aimed at enhancing medical care in Russia and increasing the average Russian lifespan, such as by building and operating the Russo-Japanese Center for Health and Longevity, a cutting-edge Japanese-style hospital.
  2. Cooperation in creating clean, comfortable, livable urban environments based on Japanese knowledge and technology honed through addressing urban issues over the years. Specifically, this includes homes for frigid climates; waste management systems; traffic congestion solutions; robust water and sewerage systems; postal services making use of urban transportation networks; and brownfield development.
  3. Cooperation to dramatically boost business ties among smaller Japanese and Russian companies, including via business matching, support for new ventures, and industry-specific exchanges, all carried out by newly established promotion organizations.
  4. Joint development of oil, gas, and other energy resources; including efforts to expand production capacity and diversify manufacturing of oil-based products. This will involve closer collaboration throughout the entire delivery chain and will be a major project symbolizing the entire cooperation scheme.
  5. Cooperation to promote diversification of Russian industry and improve its productivity.
  6. Full-scale industrial promotion in Russia’s Far East and cooperative work to make the region a base for exports to Asia-Pacific markets. Work in this area will range from enhancement of port and harbor facilities and airports to marine product processing and lumber mill construction.
  7. Cooperation in the fields of nuclear power, information technology, and advanced technologies bringing together Japanese and Russian know-how.
  8. Efforts to deepen mutual understanding among Japanese and Russian people through expanded tourism and exchange among university students and other young people, as well as a focus on growth in personal exchange in fields like sports and culture.

Prime Minister Abe is reported to have told President Putin: “In Japan, the number eight is an auspicious number signifying growing prosperity. My father, Abe Shintarō, also presented an eight-point proposal to the Soviet Union while serving as Japan’s minister for foreign affairs. This inspired me to frame my own proposal in eight items in the hope of advancing relations between our countries.”

Abe also expressed his hope for stronger relations at both the national and personal levels. “I want to go beyond the thinking of the past to create a plan that lets the Russian people directly feel the benefits of cooperation with Japan as it helps Russia’s economy grow. If we can achieve this, the two of us will have considerably strengthened the ties between our countries. I intend to do my utmost toward this goal; Vladimir, I hope you will consider the proposal seriously in return. I’d like to work together with you to dramatically improve Russo-Japanese ties.”

Putin, for his part, responded warmly to this comprehensive approach. The summit talks continued for more than three hours and ended with an invitation to Abe to attend the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September this year. Chances are high for another summit meeting at that venue. There Abe is likely to invite Putin to Yamaguchi Prefecture, his own electoral district. According to this Abe plan, a Putin visit to Yamaguchi would be quite informal in nature, but would still provide a venue for bold political moves aimed at resolving the Northern Territories issue at last.

Both sides were very careful not to let any details on their Northern Territories talks leak from this month’s summit. As Abe noted in his comments following the meeting, though, “In order to make a breakthrough on this stalled issue, we must advance negotiations based on new ideas that are different from the approaches and ideas we have tried thus far. I communicated these thoughts to President Putin, and he agreed with me about this basic way of thinking.”

It is clear from this that Prime Minister Abe is not wedded to the approach spelled out in the October 1993 Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia Relations, which calls for conclusion of a peace treaty only once the Northern Territories issue is resolved in full. I believe that we are now seeing the Japanese government quietly begin the process of moving away from the Tokyo Declaration approach.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 7, 2016. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe and President Putin at their May 6 summit meeting in Sochi, southern Russia. © Sergei Guneev/Sputnik/Kremlin, via Reuters/Aflo.)

diplomacy Abe Shinzō Russia Northern Territories Foreign Affairs Vladimir Putin G7