Amid China-backed turbulence, Japan and Russia hold talks in Tokyo

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Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Japan and Russia have pledged closer economic and security cooperation in so-called “two-plus-two” talks as they look to end a decades-long dispute over a small chain of islands.

The one-day meeting of foreign and defense ministers in Tokyo on March 20 was the first of its kind since an initial gathering in November 2013.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida on March 20. / AFP

It came amid rising tensions in the region, as North Korea continues with its banned ballistic-missile program with several recent launches that have sent missiles into Japanese territorial waters.

Long strained over the island dispute, Japan-Russia ties worsened in 2014 after Moscow seized Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, and Japan joined Western nations in imposing sanctions in response.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said resolving issues between the two countries and strengthening relations is important to regional stability given China’s growing power.

“The development of bilateral relations focused on the future is very important, especially taking into account the worsening situation in security in the region,” Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters after the talks.

“It is very important to deepen mutual understanding between Japan and Russia, particularly taking into consideration North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat,” Kishida added.

He said Russia and Japan agreed to jointly urge Pyongyang to refrain from missile launches and adhere to the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

Abe will visit Russia in late April to meet with President Vladimir Putin, Kishida said.

However, the March 20 talks produced no breakthrough in the dispute over a group of islands north of Hokkaido that Russia calls the Southern Kuriles and Japan calls the Northern Territories.

Tokyo claims the islands, but Moscow has held them since they were seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War II, hobbling relations ever since and preventing the two countries from signing a peace treaty to formally end the conflict.

Kishida said that, while Japan has concerns over Russia’s military activities on the islands, Tokyo put forward a package of proposals on joint economic activities on the islands at the meeting.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow also introduced proposals for joint activities, as well as discussing ways to simplify procedures for visits by Japanese citizens who used to live on the islands.