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Japan's Abe in Russia to warm ties with Putin
[Vladivostok] Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia's far east on Friday as the countries step up efforts to boost trade ties and resolve a lingering territorial dispute.
Tokyo-Moscow relations are hamstrung by a row dating back to the end of World War II when Soviet troops seized the southernmost islands in the Pacific Kuril chain, known as the Northern Territories in Japan.
The tensions have prevented the countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending wartime hostilities, hindering trade and investment ties.
Mr Abe's visit to Russia - his second this year - comes days after the Kremlin announced that Mr Putin will travel to Japan in December, his first trip to the country since 2005.
Experts view recent rapprochement efforts as a positive development for Moscow's trade ties with stalwart US ally Tokyo but doubt that they will result in a resolution of their territorial dispute.
Over the years, leaders from the two nations have tried to make headway on resolving the row but a solution has proved elusive and still looks some way off.
Both sides have confirmed that Friday's talks - taking place on the sidelines of an economic forum in the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok - will touch upon the disputed islands.
Japan's top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told AFP that only "frank talks" could pave the way to a peace treaty.
But neither side has signalled it is ready to compromise.
"The two parties are likely to show that they are in favour of a peace treaty but will try not to publically express their disagreements about the Kuril islands," Russian political analyst Konstantin Kalachev said.
"Japan is not ready to drop its claims to the islands and Russia will by no means recognise them."
Foreign minister Lavrov said earlier this year that Russia wants to "move forward" its ties with Japan but is not prepared to budge on the "result of World War II".
Russia has angered Japan recently by building new modern compounds for its troops stationed on two of the disputed islands.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev infuriated Tokyo last year when he visited the islands, which are home to some 19,000 Russians.
Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov told reporters that boosting trade will be "at the heart" of Mr Putin's talks with Mr Abe - after Japan joined the US and EU to slap sanctions on Russia over its meddling in Ukraine.
Bilateral trade between the countries last year fell by 31 per cent to US$21.3 billion, in part due to the punishing economic measures by Japan.
Mr Ushakov stressed that in spite of the sanctions imposed by Tokyo, the Russian market remains "of great interest" to the Japanese business community.
Mr Abe is travelling with a large delegation that will discuss a wide-range of economic issues with senior Russian officials, including foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, energy minister Alexander Novak, and industry and trade minister Denis Manturov.
Business leaders Igor Sechin, the CEO of oil giant Rosneft, and Oleg Deripaska, who heads aluminium producer Rusal, are also set to take part in talks with the Japanese delegation, Mr Ushakov said.
During his visit to Russia's Black Sea city of Sochi in May, Mr Abe proposed an eight-point economic cooperation plan with Russia that focused on energy, agriculture and industrial production.