With the recent visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Japan and Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans to visit this country in December, it appears that both Moscow and Washington are competing to win over Japan.

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speak, with the Atomic Bomb Dome seen at rear at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan, May 27, 2016. Photo: AP

U.S. President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Japan in May, becoming the first serving American president to visit Hiroshima, one of the two Japanese cities destroyed by an atomic bomb in World War II. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to visit the Japan in December.

Do the two presidents have any common interests in the Asia-Pacific region? Yes – they have both global economic interests and geopolitical ones. On the other hand, there are also profound disagreements between them about how to go about winning Japan’s favor.

Countering the Chinese threat

The region of Northeast Asia is developing exceptionally rapidly. China, Japan and South Korea are seeking ways to create an economic union that could be worth $15 trillion. Such a union, however, would be a serious obstacle to the most important initiative of the eight years of Obama’s presidency – the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

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One of the TPP's most important goals is to create an economic bloc to counter the growing influence of China and Russia. President Obama was visiting Japan not just to attend the G7 summit, but also to strengthen personal ties with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who recently visited Sochi, against Washington's advice.

Russia has its own economic and geopolitical interests. To a large extent, these go against America's, but the two countries share a desire to contain China's expansionism. Russia and Japan "are trying to counterbalance China's growth as the most important power in the region, and this is leading to a rapprochement," believes Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, echoes this view. "It is also important for the heads of Russia and Japan to meet more often and establish a relationship of trust in order to stabilize the situation in Northeast Asia – a region where China is gaining influence and the challenges from North Korea, which is carrying out missile and nuclear tests, persist," it reads.

The Chinese factor is indeed extremely important, albeit to a different extent for the U.S. and Russia, in terms of neutralizing the missile and nuclear threat from Pyongyang. Admittedly, Washington is working actively with Japan and South Korea to create a common shield against this threat, whereas Moscow is merely observing the persistent and provocative tests by North Korea, taking little comfort from the fact that, more often than not, they have taken place unsuccessfully.

Obama risks and wins

However, a range of prejudices and biases, on the part of both Russia and the U.S., is making it harder for them to reach a common position with regard to copying with China's expansionism. To a large extent, these relate to the two countries' accusations against each other of building up armaments, including nuclear weapons.

As has only just become clear, preparations for Obama's visit to Hiroshima began years ago, at the start of his first presidential term. For over 70 years during the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. presidents had avoided visiting the two Japanese cities. The idea of an American president visiting either led to strong feelings, not always positive, on both sides, and there was serious concern in Japan that such a step could lead to an unpredictable reaction from the Japanese public.

Even now, the Americans and the Japanese have different opinions about the atomic bombing. According to the Pew Research Center poll,  56 percent of U.S. residents believe that it was justified, and 34 percent that it was not. Conversely, 79 percent of Japanese citizens say that there is no justification for “nuclear barbarity,” with just 14 percent disagreeing.

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In the U.S. itself, historians have different opinions of the events. Ian Buruma, author of the book Year Zero: A History of 1945, suggests that President, Harry Truman, barely sworn in, failed to stop "bureaucratic momentum" toward using a weapon that took so long to develop.

Other historians argue that Truman mainly wanted to intimidate the Soviet Union with the bombing. "I don't think there will ever be clarity," said Buruma. He regards Obama's visit as a risky step for the president, given the lack of consensus in both the U.S. and Japan about the bombings.

Historical paradoxes after 70 years

It is a historical paradox that whereas seven decades ago the Americans sought to intimidate the Soviet Union with a nuclear bomb, now the U.S. leader is insistently calling on Moscow to help to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and Moscow, in Washington's opinion, remains uncompromising.

Obama's visit to Hiroshima had the aim of strengthening his reputation as an opponent of the nuclear arms race. It was part of his nuclear disarmament program - a strategy that has included the deal with Iran and previous success in talks with Russia on cutting the number of nuclear warheads. Admittedly, progress in this area has noticeably slowed down in recent years. Obama believes that Moscow is at fault.

The nuclear non-proliferation talks between Moscow and Washington came to a complete halt following Crimea's incorporation into Russia and the country's subsequent expulsion from the G7. Mistrust of U.S. politicians and President Obama personally led Moscow to pointedly ignore the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington this year.

Interviewed by NHK, a Japanese television channel, Obama recalled speaking in 2009 of his desire for a world free from nuclear weapons, admitting that there had been little progress on the issue. He said that at the start of his presidency he had signed a treaty (New START) with Russia on reducing stockpiles of nuclear weapons, but Russia had not shown interest in doing more. He put this lack of progress down to foreign policy issues, in particular the situation in Ukraine.

"A past that will not go away"

Nevertheless, there is one thing shared between the U.S.-Japan relationship and the Russia-Japan one: an attempt to overcome the legacy of the Cold War. It is "a past that will not go away," as Obama described it in Hiroshima.

For Moscow, that legacy is connected primarily with the fate of the four disputed islands of the Kuril archipelago. For decades, the failure to solve this problem has prevented a peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo.

In early May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited President Putin's official residence in Sochi. Following the talks, Abe sounded highly optimistic. In particular, he stated a desire to "create a new history" for relations with Russia.

Most importantly, however, the two sides agreed that President Putin would pay a return visit to Japan. According to presidential aide Yury Ushakov, this could take place before the end of the year, potentially in December. There was speculation in the Russian media that the two countries had agreed that either all four islands (Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai) or at least two of them would be handed over to Japan.

A few weeks after Abe's visit, however, the Russian president completely denied the rumors. "As for our relations with Japan and your assumption that we are out to sell something at the highest possible price, we are not selling anything. We are willing to buy many things but we are not selling anything," said Putin at a news conference following the ASEAN-Russia Summit.

The key lies in geopolitics

But if some sort of agreement has been reached between Putin and Abe, the Russian president should be coming to Tokyo with a specific plan to resolve the territorial issue. Otherwise, why would he be coming?

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According to Russian journalist Pyotr Akopov, the key to Japan's new approach to the islands lies in geopolitics. He believes that during Abe's visit the two sides agreed to continue the dialogue based on a new approach rather than old ideas, in an effort to find a mutually acceptable solution.

What does this new approach consist of? Convinced that Putin, with his reputation as a "gatherer of Russian lands,” would not give away the Kuril Islands, Japan's leaders have decided to separate the territorial issue from the bilateral relations between the two countries.

It appears that Putin will go to Tokyo at the end this year in order to discuss a large-scale plan for economic cooperation with Japan. Tokyo has had this plan developed for quite a long time. It comprises eight points and applies to the whole of the Russian Far East. Japan proposes to build houses, roads, hospitals, airports and seaports, to develop energy cooperation, to work on land improvement, to strengthen cooperation in small and medium-sized business, and much more.

If this plan goes ahead, it will undoubtedly also extend to the four disputed Kuril Islands, whose economies are in a woeful state. In other words, with goodwill and a fresh approach any problems can be solved – even age-old ones inherited from the past. Obama showed this during his visit to Hiroshima. Now it is Putin's turn.