Russia tells Japan to put trade first

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Saturday urged Japan to put trade before politics on a long-running island dispute as Japan's prime minister urged him to enter new talks.

Holding talks on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Hawaii, Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Medvedev both called for calm discussion over the Kuril island row but indicated that their positions were far apart.

Medvedev, responding to a question after his talks with Noda, said that he hoped that Japan, the world's third largest economy, would invest in the islands and in Russia's less developed Far East despite the political impasse.

"Our position is very simple: We shouldn't make a drama over the matter and continue calmly discussing it," Medvedev told a forum of corporate executives from the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) bloc.

"I believe that the economy should go first and the political should follow suit. This is the correct approach in general because it's economics that defines our life and politics makes it worse oftentimes," Medvedev said.

The two countries have never formally signed a treaty to end World War II and trade has been limited as Japan maintains its claim over four Kuril islands off its northern coast, which Tokyo calls the Northern Territories.

Soviet troops seized the islands days after Japan surrendered in 1945 and expelled its residents. A year ago, Medvedev outraged Japan when he became the first Russian leader to travel to the windswept, volcanic islands.

In September, Japan accused Russia of trying to step up pressure further by flying bombers around the country. Moscow insisted that it conducted the exercises in neutral waters and informed Tokyo ahead of time.

Noda, who took office in September, said that he told Medvedev that he sought cooperation on a wide range of issues but that Russia needed to work to make progress on the island dispute.

"The two countries have different opinions, but Japan would like to conduct substantial discussions in a calm environment," Noda told reporters after the talks.

Last year's tensions with Russia came just as Japan saw a flare-up with China, which responded furiously last year when Japanese authorities arrested a Chinese trawler captain near disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Noda met separately with Chinese President Hu Jintao and said that he accepted an invitation to visit China by the end of the year.

In the talks in Honolulu, Noda asked Hu to move ahead on joint development of gas fields near the islands. The two countries announced an agreement in 2008 but there has been little progress since then.

Hu appeared non-committal. He replied, "Let's continue to communicate with each other toward a resumption of negotiations" on the gas fields, according to Noriyuki Shikata, an aide to the Japanese prime minister.

China has argued that the "joint development" is a misnomer as the area is under its sole sovereignty.

Despite the slow-moving diplomacy with Russia and China, Noda has taken a high profile at the APEC talks by announcing he would enter discussions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an emerging free trade pact.

Obama, holding his first substantive talks with Noda, said: "I have been extremely impressed already with the boldness of his vision."

© 2011 AFP

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