Last December Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, met in Japan for the Onshen summit. It was, by any viewpoint, a significant meeting. It was the first visit by a Russian head of state and government to the island empire since the end of World War Two. Indeed, the two countries are still, technically, at war, since no peace treaty has been signed between the two countries. It was, notably, not technically a state visit, since Mr. Putin and the Japanese Emperor did not meet. It was, so to speak, all business.
The sticking point for a peace treaty has been the Russian occupation of the Kuril islands. But Abe and Putin did something quite unique: the tabled all discussion of the political status for the Kurils in order to reach a novel economic and geopolitical approach: Russia needs Japanese finance and investment in its ambitious plans to develop Siberia, and it needs Japan to offset growing Chinese influence in Siberia. Japan, for its part, needs a more secure supply of energy, and Siberia, close to hand, would be a much more secure supply source than hauling tankers through the south China sea from the Middle East.
That at least, was my view last December, and it remains my view now. In those talks, what began to emerge was the use of the Kuril Islands as the economic zone that would be the lynchpin for this Russo-Japanese cooperation.
Now that development seems to be moving ahead in reality: it's no longer merely a matter of discussion between Mr. Abe and Mr. Putin, but is moving into the detailed planning stage according to this article from Russia's TASS:
There's much food for thought and high octane speculation here, but I want to focus on these statements:
Japan’s government is going to draw up proposals on joint economic activities in the South Kuril Islands, while taking into consideration the views of the Russians who live there, stated Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Hiroshige Seko in an exclusive interview with TASS.
He will accompany Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, during his talks with the Russian President Vladimir Putin scheduled for April 27.
Within the Council of Ministers, Hiroshige Seko is responsible for economic cooperation with Russia.
"Last December, he mentioned, the two leaders met in Japan and agreed to start consultations on possible cooperation in fishing, sea farming, tourism, healthcare and other fields within the framework of the ‘special system’ for the four Northern islands. In Japan, a special Council for Joint Economic Activity has been created to implement the agreement and I have been appointed its Chief Deputy. Now the ministers and bodies involved, are working to set out certain plans. I think we will be able to develop mutually beneficial projects if we efficiently use the potential of the islands, a territory with rich natural resources and geographic layout, and if we take the opinions of locals into consideration."
Lest one think this is all "wishful thinking" on Japan's part, the TASS article concludes this way: "This March, the two countries’ deputy ministers held the first consultations in Tokyo on joint economic activities for the South Kuril Islands. The two sides exchanged their proposals, and it is likely that the issue will be finalized during the upcoming meeting on April 27 between the leaders of Russia and Japan. Prime Minister Abe is putting forward the idea of carrying out cooperation projects in the South Kuril Islands within the framework of the ‘special system’ so as not to contravene the legal stances of the countries regarding the status of these territories." (emphases added)
In other words, the signals that were sent during the Onshen summit now appear to be close to finalization: Japan appears to be willing, for the foreseeable future, to drop the legal status of the Kurils in return for a joint Russo-Japanese "trade zone" consisting of the islands. In other words, the Russian and Japanese negotiating teams have worked out the details for such an arrangement and are close to a formal agreement.