Author: Natig NAZIMOGLU Baku
Russia and Japan have made a big step towards the settlement of the Kuril problem left as a legacy of both countries since the Second World War. However, it is still difficult to judge when and under what conditions will one of the longest-running territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region will be solved.
The visit of the Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan was a breakthrough in the settlement of the Kuril problem. On December 15-16, the Russian leader held talks with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Following the meeting, the parties announced the expansion of Russian-Japanese economic cooperation and the beginning of negotiations on joint economic activities on the southern Kuril Islands. The negotiations will start in early 2017.
The problem of the Kuril Islands has a very interesting history. Under the bilateral Treaty of Commerce and Navigation (Treaty of Shimoda, 1855), Russia recognized the southern Kuril islands Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai as part of Japan. After 20 years, it returned the Kuril Islands to Japan in exchange for full control over Sakhalin. However, as a result of the 1904-1905 was, Japan occupied parts of the Russian Far East, including Sakhalin Island.
Russia had a historical turning point at the end of the Second World War, when the militarist Japan, an ally of the Nazi Germany, capitulated. The Soviet Union took control of the South Sakhalin and the entire Kuril chain. However, Japan has not recognized the loss of Kurils. In 1956, the Soviet Union and Japan signed a declaration ending the state of war and resuming diplomatic and other relations. But a peace treaty between Japan and Russia as the legal successor of the USSR is not concluded until now. Japan continues to claim the islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai referring to the treaty of 1855. Moscow, however, refers to the results of the Second World War, when the Southern Kurils were included in the USSR. Thus, according to Moscow, the Russian sovereignty over the southern Kurils is based on relevant international legal framework.
Japan has previously discussed the Kuril problem with the last Soviet leaders, and during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin in Russia. In 1998, Yeltsin and the former Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi announced the establishment of an intergovernmental subcommittee on joint economic activities on the islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai. Generally, Yeltsin was known as the supporter of the transfer of Kurils to Japan. According to his biographers, his vigilant assistants have managed to stop Yeltsin’s intentions.
In 2003, the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi began the search for the formula of the Kuril settlement. But their efforts were in vain. And only now that Putin managed to find a common language with the new head of the Japanese Cabinet, Shinzo Abe. The parties agreed to develop economic cooperation through joint actions in the Southern Kurils. Putin and Abe do not hide optimism. In particular, the Russian leader believes that the Kuril problem can unite Moscow and Tokyo. He called for an end of “historical ping pong” on the Southern Kurils and called the lack of a peace treaty between the two countries “the last anachronism”.
Undoubtedly, the agreements reached after Putin's visit to Japan, in particular the agreement on joint economic activities on the Kuril Islands, will help create a more favorable atmosphere in the negotiations on a peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo. But how real is the chance to overcome this truly epochal challenge in relations between the two Far Eastern neighbors, given that the solution rests in all the same Kuril problem?
The image of four islands
Moscow has repeatedly offered Tokyo the implementation of “joint economic activities” on the Southern Kurils. However, the Japanese have categorically rejected such a possibility considering the resolution of legal status of the islands as their number one priority. Prime Minister Abe decided on a bold move and agreed with the idea of co-operation on the Kuril Islands under the Russian sovereignty over the islands. Meanwhile, Tokyo considers the agreement with Putin as a step towards gradual return of control over the southern Kuril Islands, known as “the northern territories” in Japan. Therefore, the question is whether the recent Russian-Japanese agreement provides for joint economic activities on the islands exclusively under the laws of the Russian Federation? Or the parties have completely bypassed this aspect that gives them a basis acceptable to imagine a way to interpret the legal component of the agreement? However, such an ambiguity would definitely inhibit the implementation of Putin’s and Abe’s idea since it is impossible to carry out joint activities in a legal vacuum.
The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an interesting statement in this regard: “The solution to the problem of a peace treaty with Russia begins with creating a vision of the future of the four islands to be co-owned by Japan and Russia.” Does this mean that Putin gave Abe a green light for “co-ownership” of the islands, or is this Abe’s own fantasy on “the image of the future” as a real prospect of solution?
All these cast a shadow of ambiguity on the talks held in Yamaguchi. But if one ignores the assumptions, it is worth noting that the very idea of joint activity on the Kuril Islands was made possible when Tokyo stopped linking this issue with the immediate return of “northern territories”.
According to the influential British newspaper Financial Times: «Joint economic activities will mark an important retreat of the Japanese from their positions, which long refused any action on recognition of Russian sovereignty over the Islands, claiming that this is her territory and that she had it unjustly taken away.”
But the US Wall Street Journal writes: “Putin did not go to any concessions in the territorial dispute with Japan confirming uncompromising style of negotiation. Putin has successfully passed the Abe. He is more experienced and skillful master of diplomatic maneuver.”
Is Putin’s successful image of “diplomatic maneuvers” in the Kuril game with the Japanese Prime Minister unique?
It should be noted that Russia made a breakthrough in negotiations with Tokyo while still under the Western sanctions including those superimposed by Japan, one of the closest allies of the United States. Moscow is interested in Japanese investment in the development of the Russian Far East, and Shinzo Abe is well aware of that. He can hardly be suspected of political naivety and simplicity (by the way, his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was the head of the Japanese government during 1957-1960, and his father, Shintaro Abe, was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan in 1982-1986).
So, it seems Shinzo Abe has his own intentions. By agreeing to a joint economic management of the islands with Russia when the latter is so much in need of extra funding and tries to demonstrate successful cooperation with one of the countries that follow American policies, the Japanese prime minister hopes to get a snatch of political Kuril cake in future diplomatic battles with the Kremlin. And they certainly will take place, given the implementation of plan on joint economic management is likely to increase Japan's position in the territorial dispute with Russia.
Many Russian politicians of various views are apprehensive about Putin’s maneuvers around the Kuril issue. Thus, the National-Bolshevik, writer Eduard Limonov believes that the Russian president “should not have agreed to joint business activities with the Japanese. It was a reckless decision giving them access to the island. Economic activity is an area where the Japanese are more effective than the Russians. The Japanese know how to cultivate their small vegetable gardens best while we are always dissatisfied overlooking huge territories that we own.”
The leader of Yabloko Party, Grigory Yavlinsky, criticizes the agreement with Japan. He believes that the Russian government is looking for ways to get rid of the isolation “because they cannot make a deal with the Chinese” and “no one else accept the terms of agreement but Japan”. Thus, Putin began showing off but “this will bring nothing to the citizens of the Kuril Islands.”
Whatever the political analysts say, Moscow does not intend to part with the Kurils in any way. And that is why...
The third player
The categorical unwillingness of Russia to give up its sovereignty over the Kurils is based not only on an assumption that such a decision would create a dangerous precedent to revise the results of the World War II. If hypothetically the islands are transferred to Japan then they immediately will become a subject of the US-Japan security treaty. The United States will be able to deploy its military bases on the territory of Japan. In this case, the US can simply close the access of Russian ships and submarines from Vladivostok to the World Ocean.
It is remarkable that the person who confirmed the possibility of establishing US military bases on the Kuril Islands in case of the transfer of islands under the Japanese control was Japan's Security Council Secretary Shotaro Yachi. According to Japanese newspaper Asahi, at the meeting with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev in November, Yachi did not rule out the possibility of establishment of American military bases on the Kurils. A source in the Japanese government called Yachi’s statement “completely natural”, since the establishment of Japanese sovereignty over the islands will automatically make them a subject of security treaty between the United States and Japan.
The topic of American influence was clearly present in Putin’s recent visit to Japan. The Russian President recalled that in 1956, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to return two of the four islands to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries but Tokyo did not agree because of American pressure. The then US Secretary of State, John Dulles, has even warned Japan: if the latter takes any steps conflicting with American interests in the region, the island of Okinawa will go completely under US jurisdiction.
“Why do I say this?” Putin explained. “We must respect the interests of all states in the region including the United States. But what does this mean? This means that we have, for example, two large naval bases to slightly north of Vladivostok. Our ships have access to the Pacific Ocean. We need to understand the consequences of our actions in this area due to a special nature of relations between Japan and the United States and mutual commitments under the US-Japan security treaty... We want our Japanese friends and colleagues take into account all the nuances and all the concerns of the Russian side.”
Obviously, the Japanese have carefully listened to Putin’s speech in Washington. It may be a coincidence but soon after the visit of the Russian President to Japan, the United States decided to return 4000 hectares of lands on Okinawa Island to Japan. Okinawa was occupied by the Americans in 1945 and remained under their control until 1972. In fact, the island was transferred to Tokyo with the condition that the US military bases (18% of the territory of Okinawa) will remain sovereign territory of the United States.
The experts consider the return of nearly four thousand hectares as a friendly gesture of the leaving Obama administration. However, this fact can also be interpreted as yet another demonstration of American-Japanese friendship as opposed to intractable stance of Russia on the Kurils. It also may be a warning for Tokyo hinting the Japanese to be extremely careful as far as the joint management of the islands is concerned, especially if this conflicts with the interests of the United States. It is no wonder that Putin reminded the Japanese about the old Dulles, especially when Okinawa is still not completely Japanese.
As for the Kuril Islands, the process seems to be far from over. However, the desire of Moscow and Tokyo to cooperate on four islands gives both countries a chance for rapprochement, which can lead to the signing of a peace treaty in the foreseeable future. If signed, such an agreement will de jure put an end to the military conflict between Russia and Japan. This will surely be a great achievement.