East Asia’s Islands Challenge

“If symbolic disagreements create conflicts and prevent agreements, then the real problems lie in the domestic political considerations of the players.”

Last week, the Center for Naval Analysis published the fifth in a series of reports on the current status of the East Asian littoral.  Dmitry Gorenburg contributed an essay on the ongoing dispute between Japan and Russia over control of the Kuril Islands. The origins of the dispute go back to the 1850s, with physical and legal control of the islands changing several times in response to various wars and treaties. Russia currently holds the islands on the strength of post-World War II occupation, having expelled the native Japanese population in 1946.

As the CNA series indicates, the Kuril dispute is only one of a wide variety of similar conflicts in the East Asian littoral. Japan alone is involved in at least three disputes, including the Dokdos with South Korea and the Senkakus with China. Japan surely appreciates (and international relations theory suggests) that concessions in one area could indicate an excess of flexibility in other areas. However, it’s not 100 percent clear that Japan’s various disputants will treat commitments as interdependent, and draw conclusions about Japanese “resolve” from decisions about how to manage one dispute or the other.

But then it’s also worth noting that Russia, China, and South Korea are very different interlocutors. As the CNA reports detail, Russia has actually displayed a greater degree of flexibility regarding the Kurils than either Korea or China have with respect to their own claims, despite the fact that parts of the disputed Russia-Japan territory are populated, fortifiable, and strategically important. This last characteristic is particularly relevant given that the Russian Pacific Fleet’s need for easy access to the Arctic is only likely to grow in the future.

Perhaps the lesson is that genuine, consequential, strategic issues are more tractable than the sort of symbolic questions that govern the disputes over the Diaoyous/Senkakus and Dokdos? Because Russia needs access to the Pacific, and because (with the future opening of the Arctic) it may need this access even more in the future, it also feels the need to maintain tolerable relations with Japan. Tokyo, which has less at stake strategically, can feel free to concentrate on symbolic issues. Strategic and economic issues may be divisible, and hence negotiable, in a way that symbolic issues are not. If this is the case, then the discovery of clear economic benefits to holding the other island chains might similarly catalyze, rather than prevent, negotiated settlements.

A different question involves the extent to which any of these disputes should involve the United States. The U.S. clearly played a role in the arrangements that assigned control of the Kurils in 1945, and certainly had a strategic interest in Japan’s claim during the Cold War.

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At this point, however, U.S. interests seem as thin as the U.S. ability to achieve outcomes it wants. If symbolic disagreements create conflicts and prevent agreements, then the real problems lie in the domestic political considerations of the players, an arena which is largely beyond the ability of the United States to manage.