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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japan, Russia Vow to Keep Chasing Peace Pact

TOKYO — Russia and Japan on Tuesday agreed to keep trying to resolve a territorial dispute that has kept them from signing a peace treaty formally ending World War II, but hopes of clinching a pact this year have all but evaporated.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and President Vladimir Putin put a brave face on their failure to resolve the spat during two days of talks and stressed that overall their once chilly ties were the warmest for more than half a century.

The dispute over four tiny Russian-held islands that Japan wants back is the sole obstacle to a treaty. Soviet troops seized the islands, located off Japan’s main northern island of Hokkaido, at the end of the war in 1945.

"We agreed to keep discussing [the dispute] in order to sign a peace treaty upon solving the issue of the ownership of the four islands," Mori said at a joint news conference.

Their economic value is limited and strategic importance debatable. But Russia fears a nationalist backlash if it returns the islands. Japan wants them back as a matter of national pride.

The two nations agreed in 1997 to try to clinch a pact this year.

But Putin — signaling that the deadline was quietly being dropped — declined to say when an agreement might be sealed.

"My view is that what is important is not a deadline, but for both sides to have the goodwill to resolve this difficult problem," Putin said. "Both Japan and Russia have that goodwill."

Putin touted recent improvements in two-way ties and said the rapprochement begun by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin and Japan’s then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto had already yielded more results in three years than the previous 50 years of Cold War hostility.

"Russia and Japan begin the new millennium on a fundamentally new footing … as strategic partners," he said.

"It is true we have not succeeded in concluding a peace treaty, but I consider it is very important and positive that our two countries accept that a problem exists," Putin added. "We will continue a dialogue."

It was a theme echoed by Mori.

"We have no problems in our bilateral relations except the territorial issue," Mori said.

Putin and Mori will meet again at a planned summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in mid-November.

Putin has invited Mori to visit Moscow at a date yet to be fixed.

During his visit, Putin has tried to shift the debate away from the islands dispute toward economic issues and bilateral trade.

The two leaders signed a parcel of documents pledging closer economic cooperation in a variety of areas, including projects on piping Russian gas and electricity to Japan and on improving transport infrastructure in Siberia and the Far East.

Putin urged Japanese business executives to boost investment in Russia and vowed to make their work easier.

"It is our obligation to remove all barriers to trade in Russia," he said at a lunch given by the elite Keidanren business lobby in his honor.

Japanese companies have so far been wary of putting money in Russia due to rampant corruption and shaky laws.

Putin and Mori signed a document pledging close cooperation in the international arena, in such areas as North Korea, nuclear nonproliferation and terrorism.

Russia said it supported Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Tokyo welcomed Moscow’s efforts to play a bigger role in the Asian-Pacific region.

Putin later visited a judo gymnasium, where he donned a judo outfit and threw a male protagonist several times.

The president then allowed a clearly embarrassed 10-year-old girl, Natsumi Gomi, to pitch him onto the mat. Putin has a black belt in judo.

On Tuesday evening, he flew to New York to attend the UN Millennium Summit.