Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe congratulates Russian President Vladimir Putin after he concludes his speech on Sept. 12 at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. (Pool)

Japan has effectively ignored Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden proposal to conclude a peace treaty this year, drawing criticism of timidity and ineffectiveness from opponents of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The government is concerned that any response seen as critical of Putin’s proposal could further upset the Russian leader and hamper any progress in negotiations between Tokyo and Moscow.

During a session of the Eastern Economic Forum held in Vladivostok on Sept. 12 that Abe attended, Putin proposed that Japan and Russia sign a peace treaty by the end of the year with no conditions attached.

Such action would run counter to Japan’s long-held stance that a peace treaty can only be concluded after the countries resolve their dispute over the Northern Territories, four small islands off Hokkaido that were seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II.

Shigeru Ishiba, who is running against Abe in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election, criticized the negotiations over the Northern Territories, telling reporters that Putin had long said Russia would never return the islands, no matter how much economic cooperation Japan promised.

An Ishiba associate said the prime minister should have immediately made a strong response to Putin and reminded him of Japan’s basic stance regarding a peace treaty.

Kazuo Shii, chairman of the Japanese Communist Party, said, “It was a diplomatic debacle that Abe did not make a rebuttal or lodge an objection.”

After Abe returned to Japan from Russia on Sept. 13, he met with Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of junior coalition partner Komeito, and said about Putin’s proposal, “I took that as an expression of Putin’s desire for concluding a peace treaty.”

According to Yamaguchi, Abe also said the Japanese government has not changed its position about first resolving the issue of sovereignty over the Northern Territories.

At his news conference on Sept. 13, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “I believe the Russian side is well aware of our position.”

While Putin’s proposal goes against Japan’s stance, Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters in Hanoi on Sept. 13 that it would be inappropriate to criticize any attempt to conclude a peace treaty.

Abe and Putin have met directly a total of 22 times, but little progress has been made on resolving the territorial dispute and other issues related to Russia.

Although Japanese government officials want to avoid offending Putin and hurting any future talks, they also likely had concerns about Abe’s image at home.

Criticizing Putin’s proposal would represent a step backward in Japan-Russia negotiations as well as an acknowledgement that discussions between the two leaders have produced basically nothing in terms of real results.

During a meeting in Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in 2016, Abe and Putin did agree to engage in joint economic activities on the Northern Territories as a step toward resolving the territorial dispute.

Putin’s proposal shows that Russia may not be satisfied with the pace of not only the activities on the Northern Territories but also other Japanese economic cooperation with Russia.

Abe has always tried to portray foreign affairs as one of his strengths, so Putin’s proposal provided fresh fuel for criticism.

The opposition parties blasted Japan’s lack of any counterarguments to the proposal, especially since it all but negated the Japanese position.

“Questions have to be raised about just what came out of the 22 direct talks and other negotiations between Japan and Russia,” Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the Democratic Party for the People, said.