Japan and Russia are considering setting up a high-level consultative framework to speed up talks toward concluding a bilateral postwar peace treaty, government sources said Wednesday.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin are likely to meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit later this week in Buenos Aires to discuss a long-standing territorial dispute that has prevented the two countries from signing a treaty and agree on the launch of the framework, according to the sources within the Japanese government.
In Moscow, Russian presidential adviser Yuri Ushakov said later in the day that there will be discussions during the Abe-Putin talks on the establishment of a special consultative framework to move peace treaty negotiations forward, according to Interfax news agency.
Japan's national security adviser Shotaro Yachi and Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba will likely join the framework, the sources said, adding that the names floated to represent the Russian side include Ushakov, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian security council, and Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov.
Abe and Putin agreed during a recent meeting in Singapore to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 declaration that mentioned the return by the then-Soviet Union of Shikotan and the Habomai islet group to Japan.
Tokyo hopes to hold the first meeting of senior officials as early as this year following the upcoming Abe-Putin meeting and lay the groundwork for further progress when the prime minister travels to Russia in January for another summit, according to the sources.
"We need to start working-level negotiations sooner rather than later after the (recent) agreement to step up (peace treaty) talks," a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.
Abe's focus on the 1956 agreement has prompted the view that he will prioritize the handover of the two islands, which may run counter to Japan's long-held policy of seeking to solve the issue pertaining to the status of all four disputed islands — including Etorofu and Kunashiri — before signing a peace treaty.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono remained tight-lipped ahead of negotiations with Russia, refusing to clarify the government's stance in parliament.
The territorial dispute over the islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories and the Southern Kurils in Russia, has prevented the two nations from concluding a peace treaty. The former Soviet Union seized them following Japan's 1945 surrender in World War II.
Until now, Japan's Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Mori and Morgulov have been leading negotiations mainly aimed at promoting joint economic activities on the islands.
Abe has been seeking to achieve a breakthrough in the territorial dispute by building mutual trust between Tokyo and Moscow and such activities are part of these efforts.
Abe and Putin held their most recent one-on-one meeting on Nov. 14 in Singapore on the fringes of meetings related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore.