Japan creates ministerial role for economic ties with Russia

Hiroshige Seko
Hiroshige Seko

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to appoint trade minister Hiroshige Seko to a new ministerial role overseeing Japan's anticipated economic cooperation with Russia, the Japanese government's top spokesman said Thursday. The appointment of a minister to handle the field is "necessary to advance Japan's economic policies (with regard to Russia)," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference. The move comes on the eve of planned talks between Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of an economic forum in Vladivostok on Friday and Saturday, and reflects Tokyo's resolve to pursue negotiations with Moscow to conclude a peace treaty that has remained pending since the end of World War II.

Seko will be tasked with fleshing out the eight-point economic cooperation proposal Abe presented to Putin at the leaders' meeting in Sochi, southwestern Russia, in May. At that meeting, Abe said he and Putin had agreed to proceed with a "new approach" to handling the peace treaty negotiations, which have been held up amid a row over the sovereignty of a chain of Russian-administered islands claimed by Japan.

Abe is expected to explain the latest plans when he meets with Putin on Friday. Tokyo will likely hope to use the economic proposals to soften Moscow's stance on the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and Southern Kurils in Russia, and bring about a development in the negotiations.

Seko made his ministerial debut in a Cabinet reshuffle last month after serving as deputy chief Cabinet secretary. "During his time as deputy chief Cabinet secretary, Seko held meetings on Russian diplomacy at the prime minister's office and coordinated the cooperation plan," Suga said. According to a government source, "Seko is well-versed in economic cooperation with Russia, and is an appropriate choice for the job."

In his former role, Seko formed a team with Shotaro Yachi -- a key foreign policy adviser to Abe -- and officials from the foreign and finance ministries to consider economic cooperation with Russia following Abe's presentation of the eight-point plan in Sochi. Seko and Russian Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukaev met in Tokyo in July to agree to specify the nature of the cooperation, setting the stage for the upcoming leaders' meeting. In his new role, Seko is expected to maintain the team with Yachi and the other officials, narrowing down specific cooperation proposals in preparation for Putin's anticipated talks with Abe in Japan in December.