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Resolving Russo-Japanese island dispute

Gabriel DomínguezJanuary 5, 2016

Japan and Russia have yet to sign a peace treaty after WWII. The reason is a sovereignty dispute over an island chain. Now PM Abe has called for a summit with President Putin to tackle the issue. But can it succeed?

Abe bei Putin in Moskau 29.04.2013
Image: Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday, January 4, that summit talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin were necessary for the neighboring countries to forge a peace treaty. "We both recognize that 70 years after the war's end, to not have concluded a peace treaty is abnormal […] but without a summit meeting this Northern Territories problem cannot be resolved," Abe said at his first press conference of the year.

Russia and Japan never signed a peace treaty after World War II because of conflicting claims over islands north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, which Japan calls its Northern Territories - and Russia refers to as the Southern Kurils. To be precise, the long-standing feud relates to three islands (Iturup/Etorofu, Kunashir/Kunashiri, and Shikotan) and the rocky Habomai islets (as shown in the graphic below), all of which Russia seized after WWII. But for convenience, it is customary to speak of a four-island dispute.

"PM Abe believes the time is right for a settlement, since both countries have stable political leadership - both leaders are politically strong and will likely stay in power for a few more years - and China's rise creates a strategic rationale for Russia to diversify its relationships in the region," James L. Schoff, Japan expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told DW. But while the proposal for a summit may be unsurprising, it will be a "difficult diplomatic balancing act," he added.

Karte Kuril Islands

It is often assumed that all of these islands are small. But they are not. While the Habomai islets are insignificant in size and uninhabited, and Shikotan is relatively small, the two other islands are quite large. Indeed, if considered to be still part of Japan, Iturup/Etorofu and Kunashir/Kunashiri would be Japan's fifth and sixth largest islands respectively. Only the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku are bigger.

What lies at the heart of the dispute?

The border between Japan and Russia was originally established by the Treaty of Shimoda in 1855. In this treaty, the two countries agreed that all four of the islands were Japanese territory and they remained so for the next 90 years. This situation changed, however, in 1945 when, having joined the war against Japan in August that year, the Soviet Union occupied the four islands. The Soviets then deported the existing Japanese population and officially incorporated the islands into the USSR in 1947.

According to James D. J. Brown, an expert on international affairs at Temple University's campus in Tokyo, the Russian side considers that the islands were legitimately seized from Japan as a consequence of WWII.

"Supporters of this position can also point to the fact that it was formally agreed between US President Roosevelt and Soviet leader Stalin at the Yalta Conference that, in return for joining the war against Japan, 'the Kuril Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union,'" said Brown, adding that Moscow is also able to highlight that Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 in which it is clearly stated that "Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands."

From the Japanese perspective, however, there was nothing legitimate about the occupation of these islands, which Tokyo regards as "inherent" Japanese territory. In particular, said Brown, rather than being viewed as a genuine victor in the war against Japan, the Soviet Union (and its Russian successor) is thought of in Japan as having "opportunistically" entered the war in its final days to steal territory from an already defeated Japan.

Wohnsiedlung auf Kurilen-Insel Kunaschiri
There are presently around 17,000 Russian citizens living on the islandsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

As for the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Japanese side claims the four islands are not actually a part of the Kuril chain that was renounced. Instead, Tokyo asserts the four islands are a separate geographic entity, which they call their "Northern Territories." The Japanese also point to the fact that the Soviet Union did not sign the San Francisco Peace Treaty and therefore cannot expect to gain from its provisions.

A hardened stance

The issue has been very difficult to solve over the past decades, not least because Japan and the Soviet Union were on opposite sides of the Cold War. In the mid-1950s, however, the outlines of a possible deal did emerge and this was described in the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. At that time, the Soviet side offered to transfer the two smaller islands (Shikotan and the Habomai) to Japan as a gesture of goodwill after the conclusion of a peace treaty.

But as analyst Brown points out, the Japanese side ultimately decided the offer was insufficient (since the two smaller islands represent only seven percent of the total disputed landmass) and has continued to press ever since for the return of all four islands. "Essentially, despite the passage of many decades, the impasse has failed to move on from this point," said Brown.

Impact on bilateral ties

The dispute, however, has not completely prevented bilateral relations from developing. Although Japan and Russia still do not have a peace treaty, they formally agreed to end the state of war between them in 1956. Moreover, there is a significant level of economic exchange between the two countries, including large-scale Japanese investments in energy projects in the Russian island of Sakhalin.

Nonetheless, the continuation of the territorial dispute and consequent absence of a peace treaty has unquestionably hampered political and economic ties between the two countries.

"Japan and Russia have complementary economies - with Russia able to offer Japan raw materials, and Japan able to provide Russia with high technology. They also have several shared security concerns," said Brown, whose book Japan, Russia and their Territorial Dispute, is set to be published in March 2016 by Routledge.

Taking these considerations into account, it is apparent that present bilateral relations are seriously below their potential. "Were it possible to solve the territorial dispute, it is likely that bilateral cooperation would increase considerably," Brown added.

Abe seeks rapprochement

Given this development, the latest proposal to hold summit talks may have come at a key moment in time. While the two nations have discussed the issue several times in the past, PM Abe has made pursuing better relations with Russia one of the priorities of his foreign policy.

"His main aim is to settle the territorial dispute but he is undoubtedly also motivated by the desire to draw Russia away from China. This is because Japan considers China to be a security threat and close Russian-Chinese relations are not judged to be in Japan's long-term interests," stressed Brown.

To fulfill his foreign policy goals towards Russia, PM Abe has sought to meet with President Putin as frequently as possible and thereby develop relations of personal trust with him. "Both PM Abe and President Putin share good personal chemistry, and in spite of all the problems between Japan and Russia, the two leaders have committed themselves into building strong bilateral ties," Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, told DW.

But the initial progress in bilateral ties has been disrupted by the Ukraine crisis. Following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Japan felt obliged to follow its key ally, the United States, in introducing sanctions against Russia. "These Japanese sanctions were deliberately designed to be weak, yet they still damaged the bilateral atmosphere," said Brown. Most significantly, due to these issues, it has not been possible for Putin to make a return official visit to Japan.

Growing nationalism

In this context, Vindu Mai Chotani, a researcher at the New Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation, argues that a display of extreme nationalism on both sides has prevented progress from being made in recent years.

The analyst points out that if Abe were to let these islands go, it would not only result in Japan losing face domestically, since any compromise solution over the territorial issue would inevitably be used in domestic politics, but more importantly, it would also jeopardize the country's chances of resolving the other territorial disputes it is facing with South Korea (Takeshima/Dokdo) in the Sea of Japan and China (Senkaku/Diaoyu) in the East China Sea.

On the other hand, Vindu Mai argues that for Putin - in light of the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia - it is essential to maintain strong nationalism.

"At a time where these sanctions are beginning to hurt the Russian economy, holding on to these islands is important. Russia also holds the position that it will not negotiate the territorial issue as long as Tokyo's sanctions are in place. Despite much of Japan's sanctions being cosmetic in nature, Russia essentially wants Japan to exercise a more independent foreign policy from the US," Vindu Mai explained.

Kurilen Insel
Tokyo regards the Russian-administered islands as "inherent" Japanese territoryImage: gemeinfrei

A daunting challenge

Despite these setbacks in 2014 and 2015, it seems that PM Abe remains determined to revive momentum in Japanese-Russian relations in 2016. In this regard, he may be encouraged by the breakthrough recently achieved with regard to the "comfort women" issue with South Korea. "Having seemingly succeeded in securing a final and irrevocable solution to this long-standing dispute with Seoul, perhaps Abe now believes that he can also deliver a lasting solution to the intractable territorial dispute with Russia," said Brown.

Nevertheless, the leaders of both countries face a daunting challenge. "Given that bilateral economic ties are not flourishing, Abe and Putin will have to find additional incentives to make progress on this issue, should they want to make this work" underlined Kortunov. "Whatever compromise is reached, both leaders will likely burn a lot of political capital, so the key question is what they can offer their respective constituencies in return for reaching a compromise on this sensitive issue."

Possible scenarios

But what kind of compromise could be reached? Analyst Vindu Mai says both nations could agree on the islands' landmass being divided almost equally (return 3, keep 1; return 2, keep 2) - the main priority being that the percentage of land in question must be relatively equal. This has been proposed before, with Shotaro Yachi, currently a key foreign policy adviser to Abe, suggesting the return of three and a half islands, rather than all four (Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashir and 20 percent of the large Iturup).

Japan Shinzo Abe in Moskau 29.04.2013
PM Abe has sought to meet with President Putin as frequently as possible and thereby develop relations of personal trust with himImage: Reuters

The Russians argue that this island chain is crucial to guard the passage to the Sea of Okhotsk, which is a center for Russia's strategic nuclear submarines, noted Vindu Mai. If Japan were to acquire this land, the analyst added, they could address this concern by allowing Russia to keep their submarine detection equipment and/or a base in Southern Kunashir. In line with these kinds of concessions they could strike a bargain highlighting the above.

Vindu Mai also suggests that Russia and Japan could compromise on their respective positions. "For starters, they could jointly administer the four islands and have free movement of trade and people. There is already historical precedent for this in the 19th century," she said.

But this may be easier said than done, as analyst Schoff points out. "Japan is unlikely to accept anything less than a major concession by Moscow about its ownership of all (or at least most) of the Northern Territories, even if any transfer of administration gets pushed off by decades. And Russia will likely feel that any short-term gain in terms of relief from international isolation will not be worth the long-term political cost of 'giving up' those islands to Japan."

Why Russia is likely to decline

Analyst Brown has a similar view, saying that even Japanese flexibility and pledges of economic rapprochement are unlikely to persuade the Russians to compromise. The analyst gives four key reasons for this: First, the Russian public are strongly against giving up any of the islands since, in their view, this territory was gained as a result of the Soviet Union's victory in World War II and thanks to the sacrifice of Soviet soldiers.

Second, he argues, economic incentives are unlikely to sway Russian decision-making significantly since Japan is no longer considered within Russia to be the economic powerhouse that it once was. Third, within Russia, Japan is often seen as a country that is "tightly controlled" by the US." This impression was considerably strengthened after Japan followed the US in introducing sanctions as a response to the Ukraine crisis," said Brown.

Russland Ölraffinerie in Moskau
Japan has made major investments in energy projects in RussiaImage: picture-alliance/Mikhail Voskresenskiy/RIA Novosti

Fourth, there is the issue of the current Russian residents of the four islands. There are presently around 17,000 Russian citizens living on the islands and it is not certain what would happen to them if the islands were given back to Japan. "It is extremely doubtful that any Russian leader would agree to a deal with Japan that could be interpreted in Russia as abandoning these Russian compatriots," said the expert on Japanese-Russian ties.

For all of these reasons, analysts such as Brown see no prospect of Japan succeeding in securing a favorable deal in 2016. "Indeed, the most that I think Japan could possibly achieve would be to gain the two small islands (Shikotan and the Habomai) in exchange for the signing of a peace treaty. This is a deal that the Japanese side considers completely unacceptable," said Brown.