Uncertain World: Russian-Japanese territorial dispute flares up

Emotions are running high in the dispute over the Kuril Islands. Russia and Japan have been divided over ownership of the islands since the 1950s, but this had long since ceased to be a hot-button issue. How can we explain the unexpected surge in interest in this largely dormant territorial dispute?

Emotions are running high in the dispute over the Kuril Islands. Russia and Japan have been divided over ownership of the islands since the 1950s, but this had long since ceased to be a hot-button issue. How can we explain the unexpected surge in interest in this largely dormant territorial dispute?

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 renewed hope that the dispute with Japan would be settled. There have been ups and downs in bilateral ties since, with a few particularly warm periods, such as the friendly relationship between Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. But no significant progress was made on the Kuril Islands issue. 

Both sides promised new “creative” solutions and “meaningful” formulas. At one time, a timeframe was even set for resolving the dispute. When Vladimir Putin became president, Moscow hinted that a demonstration of Tokyo’s goodwill could get the negotiating process off the ground. But there have not been any serious talks.

In 2004, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia, as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, honors the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration – which formally ended the state of war between the nations – and is ready to discuss the territorial dispute with Japan in accordance with the principles set forth in the declaration. In other words, Russia is prepared to cede the southern Kuril Islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan on the condition that Tokyo finally signs a peace treaty with Moscow.

But Japan no longer accepts the conditions agreed upon in the declaration. 

Then President Putin thanked the foreign minister for the statement and said Russia “is prepared to fulfill its agreements with Japan to the degree that is understood by our partners,” adding that Russia’s position has not changed since 1956. 

But these test balloons floated by Russia and led nowhere. Japan either did not take Putin’s signals seriously, or decided that it could wait for Russia to make a more generous offer. But Moscow only offered joint economic development of the islands with the possibility of discussing the issue in greater depth later.

Historians continue to provide arguments to bolster each country’s claim to the Kuril Islands, which are known as the Northern Territories in Japan. But historical arguments have little relevance in what is a purely political problem. As such, there can be only a political solution. Unfortunately, the dispute has become a matter of national prestige for both Japan and Russia. This is the worst possible starting point for negotiations.

The current Japanese cabinet led by Naoto Kan has escalated the rhetoric to Cold War levels. Tokyo’s eagerness to project strength is obviously a reflection of the weakness and uncertainty it feels in the face of a rising China, an unpredictable North Korea, and Russia’s greater involvement in Pacific affairs.

Worse still, the Japanese Democratic Party, which is in power for the first time in history, has somehow managed to unsettle Japan’s seemingly unshakeable alliance with the United States. The more domestic and foreign policy mistakes the party makes, the stronger its desire to compensate for the damage it has caused to Japan’s prestige with bold gestures and displays of toughness. But Prime Minister Kan’s tough talk is unlikely to achieve anything. Even Japanese politicians who favor a hard line toward Moscow are at a loss over his cabinet’s unpredictable moves.

Russia has its policy in the region, too. In fact, the Japanese government is reacting in part to Russia’s more assertive stance toward the Kuril Islands. President Dmitry Medvedev recently visited the islands, with several high-ranking federal officials following suit. The more forcefully Tokyo speaks out against these visits, the stronger Moscow’s desire to make its point.

But Russia is motivated by political concerns in addition to psychological factors. Namely, the Kremlin has been trying to formulate a new policy in Asia, which is expected to become the main strategic stage in the 21st century.

President Medvedev was probably shocked by the deplorable socioeconomic conditions in the “northern territories” during his visit to Kunashir. Russia can continue to argue its legal right to the islands, but the fact is the Kuril Islands are sending the wrong message. Rather than showing that Russia is a serious player in the Pacific, the islands show the other powers in Asia that Russia cannot manage its riches wisely.

Asia has surged ahead of the rest of the world in terms of economic growth and quality of life, and China, the most important Asian power, is pursuing a policy of global expansion. Let’s hope that the visits to the Kurils by high-ranking officials from Moscow are not intended solely to cut Japan down to size. Let’s hope they are the start of a serious process to accelerate economic development and improve the quality of life in the South Kurils.

Russian-Japanese relations are probably at their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union. On the bright side, they can only go up from here. Tokyo’s approach to the dispute is short-sighted, and the next Japanese government, whether it is led by the Democratic Party or the Liberal Democrats who had ruled Japan for decades until 2009, will surely have to take a different tack. 

The situation in Asia is evolving rapidly, and we can expect to see a new balance of power emerge there in the next few years. The continued rise of China will force Japan and Russia to search for ways to bolster their position in the region, which could add new dimensions to this long-standing territorial dispute. They will have to take into account a broader range of strategic circumstances, and they may find that they have more room to maneuver in the future.

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Is Russia unpredictable? Perhaps, but one shouldn’t exaggerate – its randomness often follows a consistent pattern. But is the world at large predictable? The past two decades have seen all forecasts refuted more than once and have taught us only one thing – to be ready for any change. This column is on what the nations and governments are facing in the era of global uncertainty.

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the United States, Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.

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