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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: September 7, 2015 NO. 37 SEPTEMBER 10, 2015
Japan and Russia's respective stances on the disputed islands look to be immovable as the landmasses themselves
By Huo Jiangang

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) pays a working visit to the disputed Iturup Island on August 22 (CFP)

On August 22, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev paid a visit to one of the disputed Kuril Islands in the Far East, reigniting a decades-long territorial dispute which up until recently had remained dormant.

The dispute over the Kuril Islands, referring to four major islands, Kunashir, Iturup, Habomai and Shikotan, which are called the Northern Territories in Japan, constitutes a sore point in Russia-Japan relations. Since Medvedev announced his plan to visit the islands in July, Japan has expressed its concerns to the Russian Embassy in Tokyo.

As early as November 2010, the then Russian President Medvedev visited Kunashir Island of the Southern Kurils. He became the first leader from Russia or the former Soviet Union to set foot upon any of the disputed islands. Two months after being appointed as prime minister by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Medvedev paid a second visit to the Kuril Islands in July 2012.

This is the third time that Medvedev has visited the Kuril Islands. During his tour this time, Medvedev took part in a national youth education forum on the Iturup Island and visited a number of construction sites that are part of Russia's Kuril development program mapped out until 2025, Russia's Sputnik reported.

No budging

The Kuril Islands dispute is a historical byproduct of World War II (WWII). In early 1945, the Big Three—U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—met at the Yalta Conference to discuss war strategy and issues that would affect the postwar world.

Roosevelt desired that the Soviet military provide support against Japan in the Far East following the defeat of Germany in Europe. In return for the Soviets agreeing to fight against Japan, Stalin demanded that Sakhalin Island and the Southern Kurils, both of which were annexed by Japan through a war with Russia in 1904-05, be handed to the USSR.

Since the end of WWII, the Kuril Islands have been administered by the Soviet Union and latterly by Russia. For Russia, its sovereignty of the islands is one of the fruit reaped from the postwar order. However, Japan is no less reluctant to abandon its claim of the sovereignty over the islands.

In the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, Japan renounced its claim on the Kuril Islands, including Kunashir and Iturup. But the Soviet Union did not sign the treaty owing to complications induced by the Cold War. Later, Japan changed its mind and renewed its claim of sovereignty of the four islands.

In 1956, the Soviet Union and Japan made headway of some description by signing a joint statement but the two sides failed to reach consensus on the territorial dispute. The Soviet Union suggested returning the two smallest of the four islands, Habomai and Shikotan, to Japan. But Japan refused the idea and insisted upon the return of all four islands.

As the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, Japan-Russia relations began to thaw somewhat. In 2001, in a joint statement with Russian President Putin, then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori reiterated that Habomai and Shikotan should be returned to Japan after the two countries had reached a permanent peace treaty in the future.

Today, the two sides have not yet reached agreement on the dispute. A major reason for this is that Japanese domestic nationalists have clung to the stance that the four islands should be returned en masse although they are probably aware that this is unlikely to happen. Former cabinets in Japan have proposed a number of compromises, but they couldn't be placed on a negotiation agenda owing to domestic pressure.

For Russia, it would be ideal if Japan could lie down on the issue and concede the Eurasian giant's sovereignty over the landmass. Obviously, it is unlikely that Japan would go for such a solution. The key to the issue lies in the strategic importance of the location for both sides. The largest compromise that Russia could be expected to make is to give up Habomai and Shikotan, which cover only 7 percent of the islands' total land area.

Carrot over stick

Medvedev's visit to the disputed islands is not only designed to consolidate Russia's claim of sovereignty but also represents a signal to encourage Japan to adopt a more pragmatic approach toward the issue.

There is little Japan can do to counter Russia's actions in this instance. Should Japan overreact and loudly protest Medvedev's tour of the island, the possibility of seeking a diplomatic solution will be lessened. If the Japanese Government takes no action, however, it will be interpreted as weak, stoking domestic dissent. This is why Japan has usually resorted to merely decrying Russian officials' visiting the disputed islands.

This time around, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe voiced grievances in parliament and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida thereafter canceled his plan to visit Russia at the end of August.

Even if it possessed other alternatives, it is questionable whether or not Japan would opt for them, despite the cocksureness of its governmental stance. Abe said that he hoped to make a breakthrough on the disputed islands when he reassumed the office of prime minister in 2012. Foreign affairs-wise, though Abe has pursued progress in relations with Russia and North Korea, he has not demonstrated any intention to make even the slightest concession in the matter of the territorial disputes. His objective is to make Russia blink first, or so it would seem on the surface.

In addressing—albeit indirectly—the issue, Abe has favored carrot over stick, attempting to win Russia over through offering an array of economic goodies, including incentives to encourage Japanese companies to invest in Russia's wild territories in the Far East.

In the eyes of Japanese politicians, China and Russia are two entities which have ingrained problems with one another, thus China is often used by Japan as an excuse to seek common interests with Russia. That may pose another reason for Japan's diffidence concerning adopting a hard-line policy toward Russia on the dispute.

Limited maneuverability

Unlike Medvedev, Putin has not yet visited the disputed islands, which must give Abe some hope in pursuing a breakthrough on the issue. To nudge Putin toward more negotiation with Japan, Abe has adopted a stance softer than some of his international ilk toward Putin on some international occasions. For example, as Western leaders boycotted the Winter Olympics in Sochi last year, Abe pointedly attended the games.

But Japan's foreign policy is not an island onto itself; other nations have to be brought into consideration. Japan-Russia relations have undergone subtle changes since the Ukraine crisis. As the situation escalated to a proxy war between pro-West government and pro-Russia rebels, the United States took a hard line on Russian affairs. Under these circumstances, it was hard for Japan to remain neutral. Finally, at the urging of the United States, Japan joined in imposing sanctions on Russia.

Nevertheless, Japan has by no means followed the United States' lead slavishly. In May, at the invitation of Japan, the chairman of Russia's State Duma, Sergey Naryshkin, traveled to Japan for cultural exchange purposes. Japan has also examined the possibility of hosting a visit by Putin to Japan by the end of the year in an attempt to achieve some progress through talks.

But Russia is not so easily swayed. Medvedev's visit aside, the Russian Government has sent a clear signal to Japan this August by issuing a development program with an overall budget of more than 60 billion rubles ($940 million) allocated for the Kuril Islands. If things go to plan, this program will undoubtedly serve to galvanize Russia's control over the area.

In any case, some observers believe that the foundation of mutual trust between Japan and Russia is far too weak.

With regard to history, Japan and Russia possess differing views. In a statement by Abe on August 14 to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, Abe remarked, "The Japan-Russia War (1904-05) gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa."

In Abe's speech, a war between two imperialist countries was represented as an Asian nation's resistance against European colonists. Given such a characterization, it is difficult to imagine Moscow and Tokyo seeing eye to eye on historical issues.

In the aftermath of Medvedev's visit to the disputed islands, it is even possible that Russia might up the pressure on Japan to seek further compromises from Tokyo in future talks. And therein may lie the Russian prime minister's true motives for visiting the Kuril Islands.

The author is a researcher of Japanese studies with China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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