Asia's Other Island Spat...Between Japan and Russia
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Asia's Other Island Spat...Between Japan and Russia


Earlier this month, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori appeared on national television and drew a line on the map separating Japan from Russia. Mori’s line was directly northeast of three of the disputed isles (Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai) but intentionally stopped short of including the largest island, Etorofu, which remained in Russian territory and signaled Mori’s desire to compromise with Russia. Mori justified this concession as a “realistic approach” to resolving the long standing territorial row between the two countries.

Over the years, there have been a host of diplomatic attempts by both sides to determine who has legal sovereignty over the islands. Unfortunately, the two remain at loggerheads and firmly entrenched in their positions which are muddied by a series of historical treaties dating back to 1855. Tokyo claims that the sovereignty of the Northern Territories (referred to as Southern Kurils by Russia) has never been debatable and that the four disputed islands have been part of Japan since the early 19th century. This is confirmed, according to Japan, by— among other treaties— the Shimoda Treaty of 1855 and the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905 at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese war. For its part, Russia pays little heed to Japan’s claims on the islands, instead pointing to a number of international treaties—including the Yalta Agreement (1945) and Potsdam Declaration (1945)— as proof of its sovereignty. Russia also emphasizes that the 1951 San Francisco Treaty serves as legal evidence that Japan acknowledged Russian sovereignty over the islands, a claim Tokyo vehemently denies.

Almost immediately following the Mori proposal, the administration of new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rebuked the comments and insisted that Japan would maintain its official policy that all four islands be returned. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga underscored this with a caveat: “(The government) will firmly maintain its basic policy, which is to confirm that the four islands belong to Japan and thereafter conclude a peace treaty with Russia. Then we can be flexible over the timing of actual reversions of those islands.” But Tokyo is not pouring cold water on resolving the spat and has agreed to send Mori, who has a strong relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to Russia in early February to kick start negotiations. There are also reports that Abe is hoping to travel to Russia later in the spring with the intent of making concrete progress on resolving the dispute.

Unfortunately, we have seen this narrative before, most notably in 1998 when Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto sought to use his personal friendship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to reach a grand bargain. In what would come to be known as the “Kawana Proposal,” Tokyo proposed the two sides demarcate their borders with the Northern Territories belonging to Japan. In return, Hashimoto promised Yeltsin that Japan would agree to continued Russian administration and joint economic development of the islands. Hashimoto’s also promised that Japan would sign a peace treaty with Russia if Yeltsin agreed to the proposal. In other words, Hashimoto offered to delay tangible sovereignty in favor of legal recognition. However, the gambit failed: Russia rejected the proposal later that fall. 

February 7, 2013 at 07:49

Dear me maokim it must be obvious that China is the most likely target for Russian gas. Not only will China be the largest manufacturer  in the world soon but  Russian supplies of raw materials can travel over land to China. They are not susceptible to sanctions or   blockades etc by the US( or US navy) no matter how the US pivots. As for the shale gas well lets see how long it lasts for. Lets see what actual economic difference it makes. As for Europe the German government  clearly doesn't care about dependence on Russian gas(see the new gas pipelines from Russia to Germany). It will want to pay the lowest long term price. So shale gas will    push down prices for as long as it lasts.

February 6, 2013 at 19:49

Wow, what a naive article. Geopolitics isn't driven by emotions and other nonsense. Its driven by economics, pure dollars and cents. That's why the likes of Jhon Chan squabble on the internet and aren't in leadership positions.
I simply can't believe the words "shale gas" was non-existent in this article. That is what's driving Russia's pivot to Asia, not something Obama said or China might do. US has excess coal now due to shale gas, which they now export to Western Europe. Eventually there will be so much shale gas production that US will start exporting gas to Europe. Europe doesn't want to depend on Russia for gas and doesn't want to pay the oil linked prices. Ukraine also developing its own shale gas reserves. Russia needs to find a buyer for their gas. Japan is the biggest importer of LNG in Asia and pay oil linked prices. That's why Gazprom test shipped an LNG tanker through the arctic in the dead of winter to deliver gas to Japan. Putin wants a long-term deal to sell gas to Japan but Japan doesn't trust Russia without some agreement on the islands. If there is a deal on the islands, Japan would buy some (not all) gas from Russia. Better to get rid of the headache issue along the way
Japan doesn't need to buy Russian gas though. Bunch of projects being developed in Australia right now, one by Japan's national oil company. Qatar has oversupply too b/c US stopped importing gas. Mozambique has a massive off-shore gas field which is 20% owned by Japanese. Russia suddenly needs Japan more than before and Putin has strong position domestically. Yeltsin wouldn't have survived domestic opposition on conceding territory so he couldn't do it even if he wanted to, probably felt no need to compromise anyway.
Economic incentives are driving Russia and Japan closer not apart. The ignorance of media on the impact of shale gas on global security is just appalling. The history part is just a propaganda sideshow for the minions like John Chan to squeal about. It's the dollars and cents that really matter

February 1, 2013 at 15:09

As a Russian, I am really surprised that noone have mentioned the real reason Japan won't get these islands back. The fact is, they close entrance to the entire Okhotsk sea turning it into internal Russian waters. Economic and strategic value of this fact is enormous. If Kunashir or Iturup are ceded to Japan, sea becomes open. Shikotan and Habomai, however, do not close the sea, that's why USSR offered them to Japan back in 1956. And that's why Japanese insist on getting at least Kunashir back.

SC Lai
February 1, 2013 at 10:14

@Nirvana, we also suffered a great deal of brutality from Japanese imperial army :Near the Tien Hou temple close to KL city, stands a monument to testify some 500 locals were burried alive by the Japs.It’s not that we don’t want to bury the past and look forward,just that after limited apology (if it can be considered as 1), the righ-wing would contradict and deny it and hence reset the apology to zero.Tell me, how to forget & forgive?like I said, it’s easy to preach forgiveness when the thorn is not in your flesh cos you don’t feel the pain.

January 30, 2013 at 20:32

@Sc Lai,
I strongly disagree.
What you said is extremely dangerous, and more so, when you are not from China or a country that has suffered Imperial Japan barbarity. It means that 67 years after Hiroshima, you still advocate mistrust and hatred, even after treaties have been signed, economic cooperation booming, cultural exchanges promoted. This mentality is what led to WW2 in Europe. You may read the book “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today” by David A.Andelman.
Nobody denies China the right NOT to close the WW2 chapter with Japan.
Peace Treaties are solemn declarations between two nations previously at war. It means that both sides believe they are now wise enough to put hatred and mistrust behind. Japan has signed TWICE a peace treaty with China,  first with the ROC (1952), and second with the PRC (1978). If there are “loop holes” in a war time ultimatum, they need to be discussed and resolved before you sign Peace Treaties. Therefore, raising Postdam declarations today is akin to sowing the seeds for WW3.

January 30, 2013 at 02:54

Interesting to learn from John Chan that the PRC's foreign policy is based first on what is "spread on the Internet"! Secondly it is interesting to note that China did not oppose this military intervention in the UN. However, the 2nd economy would prefer not to shoulder its responsibility in Africa, where it is very present. Free-riders!

Sc Lai
January 30, 2013 at 00:25

@nirvana,first of all China is not my country,and I am not even pro China,I am merely against injustice and double standards.If what you said is true that both both ROC and PRC leaders had 20 to 30 years to dispute but did nothing about it,that doesn't mean the current leaders cannot and should not do anything now.Because the Potsdam Declaration,unlike any civil suits,has no expiry date.Seriously thinking,there should be an review of the clauses,to see if there is any non compliance,and any shortcoming / lop-hole should be plugged.Japan is a very dangerous and cunning nation,it should not be allowed to break the leash anymore,lest we have no chance to shed a tear because the retaliation will surly be fierce and extremely deadly.

January 29, 2013 at 22:54

Having re read some of these comments I see there is a lot of anti Russian stuff to the effect that the Russian military has disintegrated. Well then after the US military created the modern Georgian armed forces and let them loose on Russia troops they should have joined in when their proxy forces were threatened with defeat. What could they loose. Well according to every other open source everything. Russian nuclear weapon delivery systems are tested every year normally several times. And if the US military launch a conventional strike on Russian soldiers they are likely to respond with tactical nukes or ICBM's. For the Russian military nukes are essential conventional forces optional. All modern conventional forces will provide for the Russian military is an option that doesn't automatically trigger a nuclear exchange. As for the blue water no brain stuff. In the Second World War aircraft carriers showed that the day of the Battle  Ship was over. In the next major conflict hypersonic missiles launched by bombers will show that the day of the aircraft carrier is over. And I certainly wouldn't want to be sitting on one of these floating bulls eyes. Appearing on satellites,homed on by missiles ,sinking into history.

January 29, 2013 at 21:59

@Sc Lai,
We all understand how Chinese suffered the barbarity of Imperial Japan. So did Filipinos, Vietnamese, Burmese,… It is also understood that your nation need a "gesture" from Japan to close the chapter. BUT, your people had that opportunity several times 20-30 years ago. When Japan capitulated, you could reclaim whatever you want. The Russians even got what they wanted although they did not suffer as much as China and really took pat in the war only 2 days after Hiroshima.
Now, if you have "great leaders" such as the Generalissimo who said nothing about Daioyu in Postdam, and nothing during the time the ROC represented your people at the UN, If you have the great Mao who said to Tanaka "You should not apologize…. Without Imperial Army we would not be in power today", such as the diminutive Deng who preferred not to discuss in order to have Japan firmly on China's side against China's "comrades" in Moscow, then you should forget your grievance. Otherwise, hang Mao effigy upside down in Tiananmen, take to the streets and ask the CCP to declare null the Friendship and Peace Treaty between China and Japan. Give back BTW all the aid you have received from Japan since 1972. Justice and Righteousness go together.

January 29, 2013 at 18:20

@ Peter Lewis
What you have written is absolutely correct and has hit the nail of the whole issue. Great.

[...] [...]

Kim's Uncle
January 29, 2013 at 15:07

Wow so many posts by John chan, anon and other paranoid schizoids from mainland China!!! I’m glad chairman Mao’s teachings are still alive!! I have never come into contact with china’s crazy red guards but hearing the posts that animate from your mouths only reinforce the need for Western democracies to stay strong and vigilant because we surely do not to live in such cesspool like your country. Btw, modern Japan is a democracy that has been at peace with her neighbors for 50 years! I do not hold modern Japan responsible for the sins of her militaristic past! She has earn my respect and trust. If one day china becomes civilized and cultured, then we will respect china as a responsible country. But based on the crazy talk from John chan, be way, anon and other wu Mao red guards, I can say that china is as mature as North Korea. Btw how about those ultra modern Russian subs like the Kursk that sank and needed help from Western navies? LOL

B. Smith
February 3, 2014 at 06:28

Talk all you want but Western countries are reducing their military budgets and China is increasing theirs. In time the military advantage will go to China. As Krusty the clown said he who’s economy dies loses face big time.

Sc Lai
January 29, 2013 at 01:53

It's easy to preach forgiveness when the thrones are not in your flesh but in Chinese'.While all the people responsible for attacking Americans during WW2 were all punished,what happened to the butchers of Chinese?Notorious Unit 731 which conducted biochemical experiments on live Chinese captives all escaped  justice in exchange for experiment records,Class A  convicted criminals responsible for the atrocities against Chinese civilians were released due to fear of spread of communism in China,one of them even became PM of Japan,and now the grand son Abe,a frequent worshiper of class A war criminal  Yashikuni Shrine,if Americans are so kind,why they took over 10 years to hunt down Bin Ladin?Lastly,Japan,a loser of WW2,supposed to return Diaoyu to China along with Taiwan ,still allowed to keep her wartime loot with the help of a unjust god father,uncle Sam.

Booo Xiii Laiii
January 29, 2013 at 00:30

Comrades @C C P – ""CCP still receiving Foreign Aid in 2012 even though it is the 2nd largest economy in the world" 
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, foreign aid to China totals $2.6 billion a year. The biggest donor is Japan, followed by Germany, France and Britain, then the U.S.
There goes an idiom "Don't bite the hand that feed you" could not get through since CCP members had preached MOTTO:
1) Cheat is good
2) Lie is Great
3) Steal is greatest 
No wondering that there are millions of illusion CCP members inside China now going to quit CCP, this include large number from the arm forces as well.
On the other hand, the problem of Chinese officials abandoning their posts and emigrating overseas has become severe. In January 2010, a report indicated that according to the CCP
Central Organization Department investigation, 1.8 million families of senior CCP cadres moved toHong Kong and Macau over the years.Included are former Politburo Standing Committee ZengQinghong's son, Zeng Wei, and the two sons of Politburo Standing Committee Jia Qinglin.
All CCP Bloggers — Heaven's net seems sparse, but nothing escapes.
It means that justice is surely to come serve the righteous.
To the atheist communist regime which fights against heaven's
laws, the heavenly net of justice is now in motion.

B. Smith
February 3, 2014 at 06:25

They are moving out of China to infiltrate the West. In time there will be so many Chinese they will influence the political systems of their adoptive countries. The West will fall without a single bullet being fired in anger. Ha Ha.

John Chan
January 28, 2013 at 09:31

It is widely spread on the internet that French is the AFRICOM’s vanguard in the destruction of  Sahara/Sahel, and Mali will be French’s Afghanistan; why should anybody spoil the show the French insists to be the lead actor?

January 28, 2013 at 03:53

Captain  America surely some mistake here. In the 11th century European states launched a crusade with the ultimate object of capturing Jerusalem.  These European armies could  properly speaking be called invaders. By contrast the arab armies were not invaders. They were armies attacking the armies of Israel. A state whose creation and existence was as a direct consequence of the policies of European states and one ex  colony of a European state   (the USA). As everybody knows Israel's fate is tied to the fate of the USA.  USA, USA , number 1 but only until l about 2017 when China becomes officially the  worlds largest  economy. While the unofficial US policy appears to be  one of managed decline the regime in Israel hasn't yet considered what this will mean for them.

[...] STORY #2: Japan warns China over ‘airspace violations’ Japan and China look to cool tensions Asia’s other island spat…between Japan and Russia [...]

[...] STORY #2: Japan warns China over ‘airspace violations’ Japan and China look to cool tensions Asia’s other island spat…between Japan and Russia [...]

January 28, 2013 at 02:37

Thanks for the links. There are indeed well-documented opinions that India was the one to blame for the 1962 border conflicts.
What is your opinion/documentation about: Korea (51), Tibet (1959), Russia (69), Vietnam (1974,1979, 1988), Vietnam, Philippines and Japan today? The Chinese thesis is that each time they were provoked. But can one generalize from the Indo-China conflict that China was victim of demonization all the time?

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