Will Japan and Russia Finally Settle Their Territorial Dispute?

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Will Japan and Russia Finally Settle Their Territorial Dispute?

A deal, based on the 1956 Declaration, is closer than it has been in decades.

Will Japan and Russia Finally Settle Their Territorial Dispute?

Vladimir Putin (left) and Shinzo Abe shake hands during a meeting in Sochi, Russia (February 8, 2014).

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

On September 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to conclude a peace treaty with Japan before the end of this year “without any preconditions.” This idea has not received a positive response from Japan. Two days after Putin’s statement, during a judo competition attended by the two leaders, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated Japan’s position that signing a peace treaty would require a preliminary settlement of the territorial dispute. In fact, this meant that the Russian proposal was rejected.

It was difficult to imagine another response, given the Japanese vision of a peace treaty with Russia only as a tool for resolving the territorial problem. It would seem that the situation with the negotiations stalled. However, on November 10, the Mainichi newspaper unexpectedly announced that the Japanese side plans to speed up negotiations on a peace treaty, namely by the confirmation of the effectiveness of the 1956 Joint Declaration. According to Article 9 of that declaration, after signing the peace treaty the USSR should extend Shikotan Island and the Habomai chain to Japan. According to the Japanese plan, after the peace treaty is signed and the affiliation of these islands to Japan is determined by both sides, they can continue negotiations on the fate of the remaining two disputed islands, Iturup and Kunashir. Abe expects Moscow and Tokyo to reach a framework agreement in June 2019, when the Russian president visits Japan to attend the G20 summit meeting.

On November 14 Abe had a meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the latest round of ASEAN summitry in Singapore. According to media reports, the leaders agreed to accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty based on the 1956 joint declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union. Abe told reporters he will visit Russia early next year for further talks, expressing his hope to put “an end” to the territorial issue through peace treaty talks between the two leaders.

The unexpected move by the Japanese side gives food for thought on the prospects for resolving the territorial dispute, and in a broader context, about the direction in which the Russian-Japanese relations are heading.

The Russian side has never denied the juridical power of the 1956 Joint Declaration which restored interstate relations between the two countries and laid the basis for their long-term development. The bone of contention lies in the interpretation of Article 9. Moscow considers its provisions to be final in resolving the territorial dispute, while Tokyo believes them to be an intermediate stage, after which the parties should find a final solution of the fate of the islands of Kunashir and Iturup. It is noteworthy that in the text of the declaration there is no mention of these two islands, nor any duty of the parties to continue territorial negotiations.

Japan’s proposal would not create any “acceleration” of the talks, since it repeats what has continuously been stated by Tokyo. Undoubtedly, the Russian side will never agree to any discussion beyond what is exactly stated in the 1956 Declaration.

In this regard, question is: What will happen if the Japanese side suddenly agrees to “put an end” to the territorial dispute, by accepting the terms of the declaration as final and thus abandoning Kunashir and Iturup islands?

Then the ball will be in Russia’s court. Putin has always supported the position of the need to implement the 1956 Joint Declaration, specifying, however, that the conditions for its implementation should be the subject of consultation between lawyers. In December 2016, he pointed on the issue of Article 9: “… it says about the extension [of Shikotan Island and the Habomai chain], but it is not written under what sovereignty; it is not written under what conditions. There are a lot of questions. Even within the framework of the 1956 Declaration, there is still a lot of work to be done.” In other words, the issue of sovereignty should be the subject of further consultations with Tokyo.

Thus, the implementation of the Joint Declaration formula entails a number of uncertainties. It is absolutely clear that without some nonobvious legal justification it would be extremely difficult to “transfer” the islands without Russian recognition of Japanese sovereignty over them. In any case, the transfer of Shikotan Island – which has a population of almost 4,000 inhabitants — to the administrative control of Japan would be fraught with humanitarian and financial problems, since it would entail a drastic change in legislation and living conditions for its residents and would require large costs for either their adaptation or their relocation to the homeland.

But on the other hand, the Russian president obviously seeks to record his name in history as the leader who settled all the territorial disputes between Russia and its neighbors. In 2004, Russia signed a border agreement with China, and in September 2018, an updated border agreement was signed with Norway. The delimitation of the borderline with Japan in this sense would be a logical conclusion to the long and difficult process of demarcating Russian frontiers. It is noteworthy that Putin’s ambitions coincide with Abe’s aspirations — the latter also dreams of leaving his mark as a statesman who settled the border with Russia (and returned to Japan its “ancestral territories’).

An even more complicated problem for Putin hides in domestic politics. The majority of Russians (78 percent) spoke out in 2016 against the transfer of the Southern Kuril islands to Japan. Seventy-one percent of Russians are opposed to the compromise, by which Russia would transfer only Habomai and Shikotan to Japan (only 13 percent of respondents were in favor).

The transfer of even the two smaller islands would inevitably cause a flurry of criticism in Russia toward Putin. The concession of the islands to Japan, even in accordance with the international legal obligations of Russia, would definitely be perceived among many Russians as a form of “surrender.” Fifty-five percent of respondents agreed that their level of confidence in Putin would decrease if the disputed islands were transferred to Japan. The share of opponents of such a decision would definitely be higher among the conservative part of Russian society, on which Putin relies as his support base. It is also noteworthy that the majority of Russians do not distinguish between the islands designated by the 1956 Declaration and the two larger islands claimed by Japan, and in this sense both are radical steps toward the Japanese demands in the eyes of the Russian public. Even a cautious move by the Russian president toward compromise would be perceived by Russian citizens equally negatively.

The Russians do not see any need for concessions to Japan – and not only because it lost in World War II and therefore should pay for its past sins. There also exist more pragmatic considerations related to the assessment of the potential benefits for Russia from such a transaction. On the one hand, Japan, in the view of the majority of Russians, is not only a low-priority partner for Russia, but also a strategic ally (and in the eyes of many a satellite state) of the United States — Russia’s main geopolitical adversary. This explains the particularly pained attitude of Moscow toward the possible deployment of American military facilities on islands hypothetically transferred to Japan. It is not by chance that the impossibility of Japan’s providing guarantees against such a deployment is often cited as an argument in favor of Russian obstinacy at the talks. (However, the opposite is also true: Tokyo would be reluctant to get back the islands if they came with the “burden” of not allowing the military presence of its main ally there. In Tokyo’s eyes, this would look like a humiliating condition limiting its sovereignty over the retrieved territories).

On the other hand, neither do Russians believe in the golden rain of Japanese investment. For more than a quarter of a century, in spite of all Russia’s investment attraction efforts, Japanese businesses, with rare exceptions, did not come to Russia. It is already evident that in the coming years Japan will not be able to compete with China in the Russian market. As for references to the 1956 Declaration in the context of Russia’s legal obligations, many Russians do not consider international law a “sacred cow,” pointing to the actions of the United States, whose leaders often act on the basis of their own ideas about political expediency. Besides, transfer of the islands to Japan, from the point of view of the silent majority of Russians, is solely a matter of the “goodwill” of Russia.

Finally, in the event of a final solution of the border problem, Russia would lose its leverage over Japan, as the latter would no longer fear disrupting territorial negotiations. It is precisely this fear that many observers insist is the reason for the softness of the Japanese sanctions against Russia and for the “pro-Russian” policy of Japan compared to other G7 countries.

As for Japan, accepting the 1956 Declaration as a final solution and thus abandoning  Iturup and Kunashir would be extremely painful, as it would mean that after several decades of hard efforts Japan should put an end to hopes of retrieving the larger part of its “ancestral territories” (these two islands make up 93 percent of what Japan calls the Northern Territories).  Thus even in the hypothetical scenario, Japan is unlikely to swallow the terms of the Joint Declaration just as they are. Even the most “Russophile” minded part of the Japanese political establishment is in favor of receiving some kind of additional “sweetener” in the event of a bilateral deal. At the same time, the content of this “sweetener” constitutes the most mysterious part of the conflict resolution formula, which the Japanese side prefers not to voice (see, for example, an interview with former Japanese diplomat Kazuhiko Togo in RIA Novosti).

The minimum possible “sweetener” for Japan would be preservation of the system of visa-free exchanges and of the right of former islanders and their descendants to visit the graves of their ancestors. This humanitarian sweetener is the most obvious and easiest condition for Moscow to fulfill.

Another hypothetical “sweetener” lies in the economic plane and implies the assignment of special rights to Japanese business in the South Kurils, especially in the field of fishing. It is from these areas that Japan receives the most valuable fish products — salmon, crab, bluefish, sea urchin, and more. However, the acquisition of special rights, tax, and concession benefits by one party, as the prewar experience in the USSR-Japan relations shows, would create a source of constant tension in bilateral relations, which would make meaningless the deal itself, as it is aimed precisely at improving these relations. In addition, the provision of such benefits would be perceived in Russia as an additional condition of “surrender” and as a form of unequal treaty. It should also be remembered that any Japan-tailored economic “sweetener” would hardly be acceptable for Russia also for the reason that Russia’s customs and investment policy is in principle directed against anyone’s “special rights” and for open access to the Russian market.

As for the “joint economic activity” on the South Kuril islands, which is actively promoted by Japan  under the auspice of the idea of resolving a territorial dispute, this “sweetener” provision would rather play not for the Japanese, but for the Russian side. Virtually any projects under discussion, whether tourism, processing of seafood, or greenhouses, not to mention wind power or garbage processing, would from the very beginning require budget subsidies from Japan. In other words, it is the Japanese taxpayers who must pay for the unobvious success of these projects. And if, hypothetically, the territorial dispute were ended, then, according to the logic of the Japanese side, it would make all such “joint activities” senseless, as they are aimed precisely at encouraging Moscow to make territorial concessions.

The last “sweetener” for Japan lies in the political sphere. In Tokyo’s eyes, Russia’s unspoken favor to Japan could be proved in Moscow’s prudent attitude toward siding with China’s anti-Japanese sentiment and its consent to maintain strict neutrality over the Japan-China territorial dispute in the East China Sea.

This political “sweetener” — namely, the rejection of a new “sinocentric” order in East Asia and Russian opposition to China’s right to establish its own rules and norms on the basis of its growing economic and military power — today looks to be the most realistic basis for the historical reconciliation of the two countries. At first glance, a deal with Moscow seems to be more profitable for Tokyo, which, among other things, would receive additional leverage in its contacts with Beijing and with Washington. However, it is impossible to deny the obvious advantages for Russia, which would not only get rid of the constant source of headaches in relations with Japan, but in the long run would receive an additional bonus in the form of a more balanced and equal relationship with China. However, whether this consideration outweighs other things will depend on the strategic calculus of both Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe.

Dmitri V. Streltsov is the Head of the Afro-Asian Department and a Professor of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), Russia. He is also Leading Research Fellow of the Center of Japanese Studies of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.