Time for a Kurils Deal?
Image Credit: Japanese Foreign Ministry

Time for a Kurils Deal?


Last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba restarted a round of “half-in” strategic dialogue with his Russian counterpart during the latter’s visit to Tokyo. With Vladimir Putin seemingly set to retake control of the Russian presidency this year, Japan sees an opening to make constructive progress on their decades-old territorial dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands. 

Attempts to decipher which country is the rightful owner of the islands is muddied by a series of treaties dating back to 1855. Russia and Japan have fought two wars since then, but Tokyo claims control of the Southern Kurils as the Northern Territories, and argues that the 1951 San Francisco treaty it signed renouncing ownership of the Kuril Islands doesn’t apply to the four southern islands. Moscow remains unyielding to Japan’s protests that the islands be “returned.”

Gemba has expressed hope that Japan-Russia relations can improve under Putin, who despite his hawkish defense policies, has acquiesced to the Japanese dialogue on the Kurils more than his predecessor Dmitri Medvedev. Driving this issue further, especially for Tokyo, is the recent death of Kim Jong-il in North Korea and the uncertainty this brings to the fragile security architecture in East Asia. After official meetings in Tokyo, the ministers released a statement noting that “Japan-Russia relations are taking on a new importance amid drastic changes in the security environment in the Asia Pacific region.”

Unfortunately, Japan and Russia both continue to be treated as spare parts for the stalled Six Party talks, despite the fact that they both have the ability to serve a greater purpose. Russia has the ability to act as a key interlocutor between North Korea and its most vociferous opponents, South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. Russia also can work the middle ground between China and the United States and use its unique position to isolate Chinese intransigence on the North’s belligerent actions. Japan also remains underutilized mainly due its legacy of colonialism in Korea and its inability to find adequate closure to the issue of the abductions of its nationals. Despite these issues, Japan’s stake in the Six Party talks is as vital for its national security as denuclearization is for South Korea.

While the “drastic changes” referred to in the minister’s statement point to new leadership in Pyongyang, there’s also a subtle message about China’s ascendancy in Asia. A strong Russo-Japanese strategic partnership would not only work on multilateral security initiatives such as the Six Party talks, but would also look to hedge a growing China. Both countries want this badly, but recognize it’s politically unpalatable due to the Kuril dispute. Gemba’s optimism that Moscow will change course on its Kurils policy may not be as naïve as it seems. Russia realizes that Asia is changing, and its neglected status as a Pacific power will need to be dusted off and refurbished. This can be done with or without Japan, but having Tokyo onside makes the transition easier and could result in a potential windfall of economic and security incentives. The time for a grand bargain on the Kurils could come sooner than most think.

February 15, 2012 at 21:50

The longest and worst fear for Russian is the encroachment of Chinese into their Siberia frontier. On one side of the Amur river is over 100 million resource-hungry, predominantly Han Chinese, on dirty, scorched, and overpopulated land. On the other is thinly-spread population of 25 millions Russian of various ethnicity, on pristine and resource-laden land. It makes very perfect sense for the Russian to start playing nice with Japan to prevent an eventual takeover by the Chinese. Especially now that Russia has been reduced to the technologically backward, raw material exporting economy.

The geopolitical pressure from US and Europe is making Russia very tired, but as soon as that pressure is reduced to allow the Russian just enough breathing room, they will have to attend to their existential threat from their Southern neighbor.

February 15, 2012 at 01:32

What this author described in this article is actually his wish list, he was not analyzing the reality. He is pro-US. He wants every country in this whole world turned against China. But, in fact, Russia is eager to team up with China to hedge off US and its puppet Japan. Russia’s policy is more in-line with that of China. There are more mutual interests than what they have with Japan.

February 15, 2012 at 00:03

Neglected in this analysis is that the USA is surrounding both China and Russia with military bases and missile installations in countries hostile to the latter two. Japan is the USA’s unsinkable carrier in the N.E. Pacific and the Chinese and Russians are aware of that. Japan and Russia have long been disputing possession of the Kurile Islands and it predates WWII. At the end of that war the Russians seized the islands and regard it as compensation for Japan’s aggressive rampage in Manchuria and China where many Russian soldiers lost their lives. No Russian leader will want to appear weak and give those islands to Japan. The Russians don’t need money as much as in the 1990′s now that oil and gas prices are high. Besides the Russians keeping those islands gives them and advantage over China anyway and allows them to keep watch on Japan and the related American bases. Lastly it allows them access to the Pacific Ocean which in winter is an advantage in those cold waters. I will wager that there will be no deal soon between Japan and Russia concerning those islands.

February 14, 2012 at 23:36

The author is disingenuous. Neglected in all this is that the USA is surrounding both China and Russia with military bases and missile installations in unfriendly countries to the latter two. The Russian people regard the Kurile Islands as compensation for all the people they lost to Japan aggressiveness in WWII and no Russian leader wants to look weak by giving it to Japan. It also provides the Russians with access to the Pacific Ocean. As long as Japan is America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in N.E. Asia, Russia will not be doing a deal anytime soon.

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