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No Solution in Sight for Russo-Japanese Territorial Dispute

Shamshad Ahmed Khan was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here to for detailed profile
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  • February 24, 2011

    As Japan grapples with domestic issues and the ruling DPJ continues to be mired in factional feuds, Russia has renewed its efforts to reconfirm its territorial claim over the southern Kuril Islands, also claimed by Japan and known as the Northern Territories. Amid high-level visits by Russian leaders including the president and the defence minister to the Kunashiri Island, - which during World War II served as a Japanese air base - the Japanese foreign minister Maehara Seiji visited Moscow in mid-February 2011 in a bid to start negotiations to resolve the issue. But Moscow suggested that Tokyo follow the principle of seikei bunri (separation of politics from economics), the policy that Japan follows with its others neighbours like China and South Korea with whom it also has territorial disputes, and take up developmental projects on the island. Accepting this suggestion could prove to be highly lucrative for Japanese construction companies, but Tokyo is in a catch 22 situation. If it accepts the proposal and participates in a Russian sponsored bid for construction projects, it would tantamount to accepting Russian sovereignty over the islands. But if it rejects the proposal, the construction projects would go to South Korean and Chinese companies which have shown interest in the project with some of their representatives visiting the site over the past week. Japanese media quoted Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio, who undertook an aerial survey of the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, as saying that Tokyo has conveyed its objections to both China and South Korea in this regard. This development suggests that a territorial issue with Russia is likely to hamper Japanese relations with its other two neighbours as well.

    According to Japanese history both Japan and Russia had signed the Treaty of Shimoda recognising Japanese sovereignty over four islands, Shikotan Habomai, Etorofu and Kunashiri on February 7, 1855. The islands were seized by Russia at the end of World War II and in 1949 Stalin’s regime forced almost all of the 17,000 Japanese residents to vacate these islands. The dispute has lingered ever since, and has prevented Japan from signing a peace treaty with Russia that it was obliged to sign under the San Francisco treaty with all its neigbours and erstwhile colonies. And it came to the fore recently when President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri Island in Novmeber 2010, becoming the first Russian political leader to visit the disputed Island after World War II. Another Russian minister followed , further irking Tokyo. The Japanese foreign minister Maehara and Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano also carried out separate aerial views of the islands in a bid to reassert Japan’s claim.

    On the public level there have been protests both in Japan and Russia beginning from February 7, 2011, a significant date for the former inhabitants of the Northern territories, since it was on this day in 1855 that both countries had signed a treaty accepting Japanese sovereignty. In a protest meeting organised to reclaim the territory, Prime Minister Kan Naoto told the gathering that the Russian President’s visit to Kunashiri was “an unforgivable outrage.” The remarks were appreciated by the Japanese but drew strong reaction from Russian leaders. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told his Japanese counterpart that the “comments” have “worsened the atmosphere of the relationship between Russia and Japan and play no useful role.”

    According to Japanese historical accounts Russia was willing to hand over two of these islands - Shikotan and Habomai on two occasions, while retaining Kunashiri and Etorofu. In 1956 when diplomatic relations were restored between the two countries, a joint declaration stated that Shikotan and Habomai islands would be handed over to Japan after the two countries concluded a peace treaty. But nationalist sentiment in Japan was against this deal and no progress was made. Both governments made a similar statement in the 1993 Tokyo declaration. But again nationalist sentiment hampered any breakthrough. The Japanese who are against any such deal argue that the two islands which Moscow was willing to give to Tokyo only account for seven per cent of the total territory in dispute. But there are Japanese - including the people displaced from the Northern Territories now living in Nemuro in the Hokkaido prefecture - who believe that Japan should take the two islands first and continue negotiations to reclaim the other two based on historical documents and bilateral agreements between the two countries. As Moscow toughened its stance on the Northern Territories, former Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio who supports this approach said: “There is no hope of ever reaching an agreement by taking the approach that all four islands must be returned at the same time. We will have to decide what would be involved in a proposal that calls for the return of the two islands plus a little extra.” Japanese who favour this view believe that this will help Japan extend its Exclusive Economic Zone further. Since Russian leaders have visited only Kunashiri and Etorofu a section of the Japanese people believe that Russia is keeping the option open by not stepping on the two islands offered to Japan. However, statements from the Russian side suggest that Russia is not considering that option any more. The Japanese media quoted a top Russian official as saying that territory “settlement (with Japan) is impossible for now.”1 The Japanese media have also quoted Russian foreign minister Lavrov as saying that “Japan has no other choice but to accept the outcome of World War II just like other countries have.”2

    Many in Japan believe that behind the Russian aggression is its economic revival following a surge in crude oil prices. But a few also believe that the successive visits of Russian leaders are part of Russia’s Far East strategy. Russia wants to secure this island by deploying 2000 to 3000 troops while it is reducing the number of troops nationwide to create a more compact and mobile force.3 Russia is strengthening its security and sovereignty in the region as it plans to develop a sea route through the Arctic Ocean. The route, linking Europe with the growing Asian economies, would require only half the travel time of the Suez Canal route. Asahi Shimbun reported that in the summer of 2010, an oil tanker conducted an experimental voyage along the new route.4 The Russian defence build-up on the Northern territories has not gone unnoticed but the Japanese reaction to the issue has been very mild. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary told the Japanese media that “Russian military activity near our country is increasing and we will continue to monitor this closely with interest.”

    As Japanese politicians remain gridlocked over domestic issues and a snap poll appears imminent, it is uncertain how the territorial dispute between Russia and Japan will pan out. But Japan’s worsening relations with Russia, which coincidently came to the fore following Chinese claims on Senkaku Island, suggest that Tokyo would be forced to deal with diplomatic conflicts on two fronts in the near future as well.

    • 1. “Territory Settlement ‘impossible’ now: Russia,” The Japan Times/ Kyodo, January 14, 2011
    • 2. “On disputed island, new problem arises,” The Asahi Shimbun, February 17, 2011
    • 3. “Russia to strengthen garrison on Islands,” The Asahi Shimbun, February 11, 2011.
    • 4. “Northern isles long part of Russia’s Far East strategy,” The Asahi Shimbun, February 12, 2011.