Features | Politics | East Asia

Asia’s Other Island Spat…Between Japan and Russia

As tensions mount in the East and South China Seas, a dispute over islands between Tokyo and Moscow has also been left unresolved.

J. Berkshire Miller

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. 

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But the geopolitical scene in North East Asia has changed dramatically since 1998 and resolving the Kuril row is not just a priority for Japan anymore. Putin indicated last year that he was committed to “permanently resolving” the dispute. Amid debate about a renaissance of U.S. power in Asia, Putin has been thinking about his own “pivot” to the Far East. Russia has always maintained its historical legacy as a Pacific power, but realistically this has largely been ignored for decades. Japan meanwhile has been challenged vigorously over the past several months by China, South Korea and Russia on its territorial disputes. This, coupled with China’s increased assertiveness on security policy in the region, has created an environment with new challenges that Japan and Russia must confront. Both countries are facing an uncertain future as Northeast Asia continues to morph into the most strategically important region in the world.

China’s rapid growth presents challenges and opportunities for Russia and Japan. Both countries have significant investments with Beijing and rely on having access – even if limited – to the Chinese market. Despite this, there is clear recognition in Japan and Russia that a Sino-centric continent is not in their interests.

But China is not the only issue policymakers in Tokyo and Moscow are concentrating on. Asia’s security infrastructure has become increasingly dynamic and fragile and is riddled with potential landmines for both states including a truculent regime in North Korea, increased competition for resources and influence in Central Asia and transnational threats such as international terrorism and organized crime. Moreover, Russia and Japan are both keen to enhance their strategic partnership on energy, which has been held hostage by their territorial dispute.

The substantial and growing overlapping interests make it increasingly important for Moscow and Tokyo to acquire the diplomatic courage necessary to resolve their territorial dispute and move closer to a strategic partnership. Unfortunately, we are already seeing the trenches forming as both sides try to appease their domestic electorate which is opposed to concessions on the islands. Earlier today, for instance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov belittled Japan’s position on the island dispute and called on it to accept legal reality. Japan also seems to be hedging as it also fears too great of a compromise may also embolden its rivals in other territorial disputes.

A long term solution remains problematic, and there are risks involved in such an initiative, but the potential benefits of a partnership between Tokyo and Moscow should prompt both sides to make a serious effort at a rapprochement. Even in the absence of this, Tokyo and Moscow should still take tangible confidence building steps such as increased people-to-people ties on the islands and potentially refloating the idea of a free trade zone and joint development projects. Stagnation is no longer a viable option.