Tricky Kuril Ties

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Tricky Kuril Ties

Russia and Japan must resolve the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories issue if they want to build closer strategic ties.

Following is a guest post from new Flashpoints contributor J. Berkshire Miller

Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, Khabomai—to most observers these are little more than obscure foreign names. However, the dispute over the Kuril Islands (called the Northern Territories in Japan) remains the most vexing territorial dispute amongst G-8 states, with strategic implications well beyond Russo-Japanese relations.

Bilateral tensions between Tokyo and Moscow on the territorial dispute have escalated in recent months, with the unprecedented visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Kunashir Island last November. During his visit, Medvedev promised the citizens of the remote outpost that Russia would ‘remain here’ and was committed to investing money in order to fully develop the island’s capacity. This was a dramatic change of course for Russia, which had previously taken a more nuanced and diplomatic approach to the territorial dispute with its neighbour.

High-level reaction in Japan was initially modest, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan calling the incident ‘very regrettable’ and Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara summoning Moscow’s ambassador to Japan for a tête-à-tête. Shortly after, the young and ambitious Maehara met with Moscow’s mercurial foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to try to tamp down the spat. But the failure of these talks, combined with intense political pressure in Japan for a stronger stance, culminated in Kan’s recent remarks at a Tokyo rally demanding the return of the territories to Japan. He also labelled Medvedev’s visit ‘unforgiveable’ and ‘an outrage.’

The significance of this dispute transcends political posturing or economic interests (the islands’ real value lies in marine boundaries surrounding them). The dispute certainly hasn’t wrecked strategic Russo-Japanese relations—Tokyo still cooperates with the Kremlin on key international security issues such as nuclear disarmament, counter-terrorism, drug smuggling and the Six-Party Talks with North Korea. In addition, both countries have committed to deepening their economic ties in the areas of energy cooperation, information technology and nation-to-nation exchanges.

Still, while the Kuril dispute hasn’t made the two into enemies, it has so far still managed to derail the potential for a meaningful strategic relationship.

As Japan’s strategic environment continues to evolve, it will need to decide where to look for partners. Historically, the Japanese have relied on their security alliance with the United States, a partnership that will continue for the foreseeable future. This relationship, however, shouldn’t induce Japan into having a myopic vision of its geopolitical interests.

As China continues to emerge, it will continue to seek out strategic relationships in the region. Sino-Japanese relations continue to be fraught with problems, and it’s not just over periodic spats about history textbooks and poisoned dumplings. The divide between the two is more complex, and is perpetuated by different visions of the future of the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan’s differences with China, North Korea and, to a lesser degree, South Korea, have presented an opening for repairing relations with Russia. Indeed, a closer relationship with Moscow would also serve to improve Japan’s ties with China and South Korea by demonstrating its willingness to compromise on lingering issues from the Second World War.

All this said, resolving the territorial dispute won’t come without cost for Tokyo and Moscow—political and economic. In 1956, both sides almost agreed to a compromise solution in which the Soviet Union agreed to return the two smaller islands (Shikotan and Khabomai) upon the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries from World War II. But while they agreed on a joint declaration, they couldn’t conclude the peace treaty because both sides found the other’s demands ultimately unacceptable.

Throughout years of negotiations, a myriad of ideas have been introduced such as revolving the administration of certain islands, or different combinations of which islands would be returned. So far, though, none of these solutions has been enough to break the deadlock.

But if the two countries want to hedge against the emergence of China and assume primary roles in charting the future strategic course of the region, they’re going to have to find a way of resolving this dispute first.