Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Osaka on June 29. (Pool)

It is now clear that Japan’s negotiations with Russia for a bilateral peace treaty have hit a brick wall.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a major concession, switching from demanding the handover of all four islands off Hokkaido that were seized by Russia in the closing days of World War II to asking for the return of only two of the islands.

But this gambit has failed to break the impasse.

The Abe administration should acknowledge the failure of its strategy for dealing with the territorial talks with Moscow and rethink it now.

The administration apparently wanted to see the contours of an agreement emerge from Abe’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Osaka to attend the Group of 20 summit. But there was no specific progress.

Since the Abe-Putin meeting in November, Japan has made a series of unilateral concessions. Tokyo has stopped using its familiar refrains in the territorial dispute, such as “the return of the four islands” and “territory that is an integral part of Japan.”

In the Japanese government’s latest diplomatic bluebook, which depicts an outline of Japan’s diplomacy, the claim that the four islands belong to Japan has been dropped.

In the meantime, Russia has maintained its uncompromising stance toward the issue. It has said that it cannot hold negotiations with Japan unless Tokyo admits that the four islands are Russian territory. The Kremlin has refused to call them by the Japanese name of the Northern Territories.

Moscow has even criticized Japan’s security alliance with the United States, which is the very core of its security policy.

Since his meeting with Putin in November, Abe has told the Japanese public that there are two agreements between the two governments concerning the territorial dispute.

For one, Abe has said, the two governments have agreed to accelerate negotiations based on the 1956 joint Japan-Soviet Union declaration, which re-established bilateral diplomatic relations and stipulated the return of two of the islands--Habomai and Shikotan--after the conclusion of a peace treaty.

Secondly, Abe has said he has shared with Putin a commitment to settling this dispute by their own hands.

But these two claims have turned out to be groundless.

Referring to the 1956 declaration, Putin has said the handover of the sovereignty over the two islands to Japan was not promised, staking a position that is completely inconsistent with Tokyo’s.

Moreover, Putin has never said he will settle the dispute with his “own hands.”

In September, Putin abruptly proposed that the two countries sign a bilateral peace treaty without any preconditions. He effectively suggested that the territorial row should be shelved.

Abe misinterpreted Putin's intention and mistook his message as a sign of his desire to conclude a peace treaty.

Consequently, Abe made the big mistake of switching to focusing only on the return of the two islands.

The Abe-Putin meeting in Osaka was their 26th summit. The two leaders have spent a great deal of time in one-on-one talks. If he failed to grasp Putin’s real intentions in proposing a peace treaty without preconditions, Abe should be ashamed of his diplomatic naivete.

The Russian case has underscored deep flaws with Abe’s diplomatic approach, which relies heavily on his personal ties with foreign leaders in tackling complicated foreign policy issues. He has failed to pay due attention to important changes in the international situation, such as the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the United States and its efforts to expand ties with China.

There is now no doubt that Abe’s “embrace diplomacy” cannot untangle the complicated issue of sovereignty over the islands.

Abe was probably too eager to score diplomatic points ahead of the July Upper House election.

Abe has not given the Diet any honest, straightforward explanations about the policy change he has made in regard to the territorial dispute.

It is questionable whether Tokyo should pursue a peace treaty with Russia at this moment when Moscow is under harsh international criticism over its violations of international law in recent years, including the annexation of Crimea.

The Abe administration should take a more long-term, broad-based approach to the negotiations for a peace treaty with Russia while continuing constructive dialogue with the country.

Abe should stop chasing a fantasy in the tough-minded world of diplomacy.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 2