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Japan’s Territorial Dispute with Russia heating up again

Pranamita Baruah is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • February 17, 2012

    As the Noda Administration grapples with the Futenma base relocation issue with the United States, Japan’s territorial disputes with Russia has re emerged as another major irritant to foreign policy making. Russia has once again asserted its claim over the southern Kurils/the Northern Territories, which for long has been claimed by Japan. Despite Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s recent eagerness to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia, the latter so far has not shown any indication of toning down its hard-line diplomatic stance on the issue.

    Japanese historical accounts suggest that under the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation signed by Japan and Russia on February 7, 1855, Russia accepted Japan’s sovereignty over the four islands: Shitokan, Habomai, Kunashiri and Etorofu. However, after the end of World War II, Russia not only seized these islands from Japan, but also forced the 17,000 Japanese residents there to leave. Since then, the Northern Territories has been a major issue of contention between Japan and Russia. While signing the joint declaration in 1956 (which restored diplomatic relations), both countries agreed that upon conclusion of a bilateral peace treaty, the Soviet Union would return those disputed territories to Japan. Although the joint declaration was ratified by both parties, the dispute over the Northern territories has remained a major stumbling block for concluding a peace treaty. The Japanese however felt encouraged when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged the Northern Territories as disputed territory. Further, the statement by President Boris Yeltsin in 1993 that the 1956 joint declaration was still valid was treated by many Japanese as a sign of hope in resolving the longstanding territorial dispute. However, such statements failed to result in any concrete positive outcome.

    The current stance of both Japan and Russia on the Northern Territories clearly indicates that the resolution of the territorial dispute remains a distant dream. Moscow claims that Tokyo cannot claim sovereignty over the four islands because in the San Francisco Treaty concluded after Japan’s defeat in World War II, Japan surrendered the entire Kurile chain. The victorious Soviet Union acquired the disputed islands, along with the southern part of Sakhalin (the northern half belonged to the Soviet Union even before the World War II) as justly deserved spoils of war and as agreed to by the allied powers at the Yalta Conference. Tokyo however argues that the four disputed islands were not surrendered by Japan in the peace treaty. It further argues that as the peace accord did not specify to whom the surrendered territory would belong, the Soviet Union (now Russia) could not claim sovereignty over those islands. Japan also rejects Russia’s claim by arguing that as the latter did not sign the peace accord, it could not possibly demand those islands on the basis of the San Francisco treaty.

    The tug of war between Tokyo and Moscow over the Northern Territories has intensified over the last few years. The Russian leadership seems to be using this dispute to fan patriotism within the country. The passage of a legislation (July 7, 2010) by the Duma in establishing September 2 as the day to commemorate the end of the Great Patriotic War clearly indicates that point, since it was on that very day in 1945 that Japan signed the instrument of surrender. Then on September 28, 2010, in a joint statement issued by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao on the occasion of commemorating the 65th anniversary of World War II, the two leaders pledged to strengthen the Russo-Chinese strategic alliance. This development, followed by high-level visits by President Medvedev and Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov along with other key ministers and high-ranking officials to the disputed Kunashiri island irked the Japanese policy makers. With a view to reasserting Japan’s claim over those islands, the then Japanese Foreign Minister Maehara and Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano also conducted separate aerial inspections of those islands.

    In recent times, the dispute over the Northern Territories has come to the forefront due to Russia’s increasing interest in developing the long-neglected economy of the Russian Far East (including the Southern Kurils), an effort in which ironically Russia considers Japan as a partner. Moscow has in fact repeatedly urged Japan to follow the principle of ‘sankei bunri’ (separation of politics and economics) while developing closer economic ties with Russia in this region, especially in the energy field. This has clearly put Tokyo in a dilemma. While on the one hand, Russia’s suggestion could prove a highly lucrative one for Japanese construction companies, on the other hand accepting Russian-sponsored construction bids in the Northern Territories would tantamount to accepting Russian sovereignty over those islands.

    More recently, while attending a public rally on February 7, held to commemorate the conclusion of the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation with the Soviet Union in 1855, Japanese Prime Minister Noda pledged to “make steady and determined efforts to move ahead with negotiations” and underscored the necessity of concluding a peace treaty with Russia. That rally was also attended by Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and Tatsuo Kawabata, the minister in charge of issues related to Okinawa and the Northern Territories. A large number of former Japanese residents of the disputed islands were present at the rally and they demanded the return of all the islands to Japan. Meanwhile, while attending a similar annual public rally on February 7, many Russians from the Sakhalin region gathered in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (provincial capital of Sakhalin) and asserted that the disputed islands belonged to Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also made a statement recently that the disputed islands became a part of Russia as an outcome of World War II, which has caused great concern among Japanese policy makers. Although Lavrov emphasised on the necessity of economic cooperation between Russia and Japan in those islands (especially in fisheries, marine products processing and agriculture), his idea seems to be based on the premise that those activities should be carried out under Russian law. This seems to have aggravated the Japanese leadership’s concern further. Given its impending presidential election, there is little hope that Russia will relax its hard-line diplomatic stance on the territorial dispute in the near future.

    Given Moscow’s growing commitment towards the economic development of the Russian Far East, including the Northern Territories, the dispute between Japan and Russia might aggravate further in the coming years. Further, since both China and South Korea have expressed their eagerness to participate in Russian-sponsored construction projects in those territories, any attempt by the Japanese government to stop those projects could dampen its bilateral relationships with those two neighbouring states as well. At present, while Japan is going through a rough phase economically, it cannot possibly afford to severe its strong economic ties with China and South Korea. Moreover, as the East Asian situation is changing significantly with China’s rise as a regional as well as global power and the change of leadership in North Korea, it becomes extremely important for both Japan and Russia to deepen their bilateral cooperation. They should not let the territorial dispute affect their relationship from prospering. Tokyo seems to be aware of that fact. That is why, during his recent talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Japanese Foreign Minister Gemba insisted on increasing bilateral cooperation in the security, energy, economic and maritime fields. On the issue of the territorial dispute, both parties agreed not to shelve it, but to promote discussions based on past accords between the two countries and the principle of “law and justice”.

    Although the eventual outcome of the territorial dispute remains highly uncertain, at present both states need to take strong steps towards promoting mutual trust. To achieve that, they need to have a more comprehensive engagement in economic and social spheres, at national and sub-national levels, involving more and more people from the Sakhalin region as well as the northern and western regions of Japan. In the meantime, Tokyo needs to ascertain the possible diplomatic stance of the incoming Russian government on the Northern Territories. While drawing up an appropriate diplomatic strategy, the Noda Administration should also make an effort to reach a breakthrough in resolving the dispute. As Russia has offered to support “an ultimate solution” on the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals, Tokyo could also join hands with Moscow in resolving the issue under North Korea’s new leadership. This could go a long way in improving the bilateral relationship between Japan and Russia. With Russia’s increasing involvement in the Asia-Pacific region, it has become extremely important for Japan to build a relationship of trust with that country and keep the territorial dispute on the back seat, at least for the time being.

    Pranamita Baruah is a research assistant in the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and currently a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA).

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