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Asia

Russo-Japanese ties thaw after long freeze

Japan's PM Abe has announced he would meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Sochi Winter Olympics, an indication of the thawing ties between Moscow and Tokyo after decades of disguised distrust.

Japan and Russia have yet to sign a peace treaty to conclude World War II, a result of troops from the Soviet Union occupying Sakhalin and a scattered archipelago of islands off northern Japan in the final days of the conflict. But after years of respective governments giving each other the cold shoulder ,the relationship has started to grow warmer

The latest indication of improvement in bilateral ties includes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (main picture, right) announcing that he will attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games on February 7 in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. The prime minister has also made it clear that he would like to take the opportunity to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

An Olympic torch is placed in front of a poster for the Sochi Winter Olympics

Japanese PM Abe announced he would attend the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics

The Japanese media are strongly behind the meeting, although there have been expressions of concern about the security situation in the region. If the meeting goes ahead, then it would be the fifth time the two leaders have met since Abe took office in December 2012 - a remarkable number given the preceding years of apparent indifference between Russian and Japanese leaders.

Warmer ties

President Putin returned the positive message in a slightly different manner by declining to criticize Abe for visiting Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine in December. Visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders draw criticism from countries that were occupied by Japan in the early decades of the last century as it is considered a place to honor the souls of Japanese who died in war, including a number of Class-A war criminals.

An interviewer from state-run China Central Television made a thinly veiled allusion to the prime minster's Sochi visit, to which Putin replied: "I would like to say that the outcome of World War II is unchangeable and it has been fixed by a number of international legal documents. "However, we will also strive to develop good neighborly relations with all countries of the world and work together to strengthen international security."

Tokyo is taking that as a marker of Putin's intent to further develop the relationship. "The warmth has been coming back into Russia-Japan ties for the last couple of years, but it is getting even stronger now," Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's Meiji University, told DW. He added that Putin has been positive towards improving ties with Japan, as he doesn't want the Russian economy to become overly reliant on China for oil and natural gas exports," he said.

Energy resources critical

Access to energy from the vast deposits in Siberia is of particular interest to Japan at the moment, given that its nuclear reactors have remained off-line since the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant. Tokyo is reluctant to rely too heavily on energy imported from the volatile Middle East.

Plans are afoot to develop the polar route for large container vessels, which will take advantage of thinning sea ice in the summer months to link manufacturers and markets in Europe and the Far East in just 19 days, far shorter than the 38 days it requires to complete the journey through the Suez Canal.

Japan's crippled nuclear plant Fukushima

Japan's nuclear reactors remain off-line since the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant

Similarly, there are moves to extend the Trans-Siberia railway to the Russian island of Sakhalin and then to construct a 35-km-long tunnel to link it to Japan's most northerly main island of Hokkaido.

Moving beyond cooperation in trade and energy, the Japanese government has hinted that it is considering revising a memorandum on defense exchanges with Moscow to expand areas of possible cooperation, including reciprocal visits by defense ministers and joint military exercises.

The new agreement could be in place this autumn and finding common ground here would go a long way to solving the dispute over the Russian-held islands. "Abe wants to bring the issue of the Northern Territories to a close and he is using Japanese politician andformer PM Yoshiro Mori's close ties with Putin to do that," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

Building on judo ties

Both Mori and Putin are avid judo players and have established a close rapport over more than a decade of exchanges.

"The question over the islands has dragged on for 60 years now and one proposal states that two of the four islands could be returned to Japan," Okumura said. "That formula could work, it could be a resolution that satisfies both sides and it would be seen as a major achievement by Abe."

Yet another advantage of warmer ties between Russia and Japan - and one that Tokyo is particularly keen on, given recent tensions in the Asia-Pacific region - would be closer commitments in the areas of security and defense.

Abe has been courting other countries in the region as allies to counter China, which has made territorial claims over large swathes of the South China Sea as well as islands presently controlled by Japan. Having Russia as an ally would significantly bolster Japan's defenses as well as permitting the Self-Defence Forces to continue the realignment from a ground force facing down Cold War threats to one that is capable of defending remote islands with naval and air units.

"Abe's moves are obviously made with Beijing in mind, but if China was not there then Japan would still be seeking out these agreements with Russia on energy, trade, transportation links and so on," said Okumura.

Abe will be hoping that Japanese athletes return from Sochi with a clutch of medals, but agreements on a range of other bilateral issues are likely to be regarded as an even bigger success.