Japan, Russia Trade Kurils Barbs

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Japan’s long running territorial dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands (which the Japanese refer to as the Northern Territories) has resurfaced, with the United States reaffirming its support for the idea that the islands should be returned to Japan. During US-Japan security consultations last week, Washington once again lent support to Tokyo’s insistence that the islands be returned to Japanese administration and sovereignty.

The issue remains dynamic and its relative importance ebbs and flows in the context of political developments in Moscow and Tokyo. Relations between the two on the dispute reached their nadir last November, when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made his now notorious visit to Kunashir Island. During the visit, Medvedev pledged to enhance Russia’s military posture on the island chain. Japan responded with its toughest words in years on the issue when Prime Minister Naoto Kan labelled the visit as ‘unforgiveable.’

This year started with a subdued tone on both sides. In Japan, the Kan administration has been overwhelmed with the recovery efforts from the Tohoku earthquake and political infighting within the Democratic Party of Japan. Russia has had its distractions too, including Moscow’s airport bombing in January and the ramping up of preparations to host the winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

Tokyo continues to view the Kurils as an irredentist struggle, while Moscow seems content to ride the status quo so long as bilateral relations continue relatively smoothly. Despite this, the Russian Foreign Ministry didn’t hesitate to condemn what it views as US interference in a bilateral dispute. The ministry released a statement last week noting that ‘questioning Russia's sovereignty over the South Kuril Islands, which are part of Russia's territory as a result of World War II, as enshrined in the UN Charter, is inappropriate.’

Moscow further hardened its stance by claiming that it doesn’t view a formal peace treaty ending World War II – which remains unsigned due to the Kuril dispute – as an essential step for positive relations with Japan. Last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov stressed that Japan and Russia continue to have a strong bilateral relationship despite their disagreement on this issue. He further attempted to soothe Japanese frustration with Medvedev’s visit last year by claiming that Russia doesn’t intend to significantly increase its military presence on the islands.

While US support for Japan’s claim is unsurprising, its public reaffirmation is reflective of enhanced bilateral security relations in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and attempts to diplomatically patch up the thorny situation of the Futenma base in Okinawa. Kan’s government needs to procure a tangible reimbursement for its flexibility on Futenma, and Washington’s strong backing to resolve the Kurils issue is one main part of this ‘strategic benefits’ package. 

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