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Russia rejects China offer to cooperate on Japan disputes

TOKYO -- Russia has rejected a Chinese offer to cooperate on their separate territorial rows with Japan, a report said Thursday, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepared to meet President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.

Beijing said it would support Moscow in its decades-old dispute over the sovereignty of islands to the north of Japan in exchange for backing in its row about the ownership of an East China Sea archipelago, the Mainichi Shimbun reported.

The offer has been made repeatedly since 2010, the paper said, citing diplomatic sources in Russia and Japan, but has always been brushed off.

The report came just ahead of Abe's attendance at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics and a subsequent summit with Putin, at which they are expected to discuss the Russia-controlled Southern Kurils, which Japan claims as the Northern Territories.

Soviet troops took the islands in the final days of World War II, turfing out several hundred Japanese who lived there at the time. The issue has prevented the signing of a formal peace treaty between the two countries.

But an increasingly close working relationship between Abe and Putin, who have already held four summits since the Japanese prime minister took office in December 2012, has offered hope of progress, although Tokyo said it is unlikely to be settled in the near future.

“We are not overly optimistic about negotiations on the territorial issue,” a foreign ministry official said. “So far, President Putin has been consistent (in asserting Russian ownership) ... which is not at all acceptable for us,” he said.

However, the frequent summitry and willingness to discuss the Russo-Japanese dispute is in stark contrast to Tokyo's dispute with Beijing.

Tensions between Asia's two largest economies remain high, with coastguards from both sides engaged in stand-offs near the Japanese-run Senkaku islands, which China calls the Diaoyus.

China, which is also engaged in territorial disputes with several countries surrounding the South China Sea, usually refuses to deal multilaterally and insists rows should be settled between two claimants.

The Japanese foreign ministry official said he was not aware of any cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.

“Russia takes a position that the issue should be resolved between Japan and China. I don't believe Russia agrees with China's position,” he added.

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