TOKYO (AFP) -Russian President Vladimir Putin has opened a visit to Japan hoping he can secure new business even though the two countries refuse to compromise on a territorial dispute that has hampered ties for 60 years.
Putin brought a delegation of 100 business leaders for his first trip to Japan in five years but few expect any breakthrough on four Kuril islands off Japan”s northern coast seized by Moscow at the end of World War II.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has already expressed doubts that any agreement will come out of his summit with Putin on Monday, saying there was a "deep gulf" in views between the countries over the islands.
But Russia sorely needs investment from the world”s second-largest economy, leading to hopes that economic relations could help Tokyo and Moscow overcome the protracted island dispute.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso, meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last week at an Asia-Pacific meeting in South Korea, called on the two countries to look at joint economic projects for the islands.
"We will see no progress while both countries claim rights to the islands. I think it would be a new approach to carry out joint projects without clarifying" the sovereignty question, Aso said Friday.
Russia also wants Japan to pay half of the projected 16 billion-dollar price tag on an oil pipeline linking Siberian reserves to the Pacific, but Tokyo wants guarantees first that Japan — not growing rival China — will be the priority recipient.
Japan, which has yet to sign a peace treaty with Moscow ending World War II, will also formally back Russia”s bid to join the World Trade Organization during Putin”s three-day visit and sign a deal for Japan to help dismantle Soviet nuclear submarines.
"It is essential to attract Japan into the Russian economy," said Andrei Fyodorov, an expert at the Kremlin-linked Foreign Policy and Defense Council. "There is a lot of money available in Japan."
But not everyone in Japan is as enthusiastic about business with Russia. Trade between the countries amounted to a below-potential nine billion dollars last year.
"For Japan, Russia is a minor economic player," said Akihiro Iwashita, a professor at Hokkaido University specializing in Russian diplomacy.
"Even the project of building a pipeline for oil from Siberia is not enough for Tokyo to make a compromise in the territorial disputes as the project is costly," Iwashita said.
"By the same token, Japan”s economic aid would be not enough for Russia to lose face by making any concession on the Kuril islands issue," he said.
The ghosts of World War II hang over the dispute involving the islands, whose Japanese residents were expelled after the Soviet takeover.
Many Russians oppose giving up a proud conquest from World War II and fear it could open up new claims by other countries unhappy with post-1945 borders.
In Japan, however, nationalist politicians are keen to make a "normal country" free from the painful memories of World War II defeat.
The four islands, known to the Japanese as the Northern Territories, are one of a series of tiny spots on the map that Tokyo disputes with its neighbors.
One potential solution drafted by Russian experts would entail a peace treaty with Japan within two to three years with a timetable for a phased handover over 50 years, a source close to the proposal said.
Putin had been invited to visit Japan in 2005 to mark 150 years since the two countries established diplomatic ties and 100 years since their first peace treaty. But the Kuril dispute had cast doubts on the visit.
Putin last visited Japan in September 2000, a few months after taking office.