The recent official statement by the Japanese cabinet’s chief secretary on the lingering Japan and Russia’s disputed claims over the Kuril Islands has brought the region back into the limelight. Mr. Katsunobo Kato, while commenting on the decade-old territorial dispute said, “I think that the government will continue to be determined to negotiate in line with resolving our main issue and concluding a peace treaty.”
The seven-decade-old territorial dispute over the status of sovereignty over the Kuril Islands, whom Japan refers to as its “Northern Territory” has been constantly emphasizing over the signing of the peace treaty, that will lead to Russia losing, at least two out of four islands in this North Pacific Ocean Archipelago, lying between the Hokkaido and the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula. The islands are known by various names in Russia and Japan as Shikotan, Habomai Islets/Khabomai, Kunashiri/Kunashir, Etorofy/Iturup.
The islands were conquered by the then Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, and have been under their control since then, and Moscow has declared them as an integral part of Russia.
In 1956, the Soviet Union and Japan had signed a joint declaration that stipulates the handover of the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan to Japan. However, no formal Peace treaty was signed post the declaration that could have accelerated the transfer process. Russia, as the successor state of the Soviet Union, also at times was ready for the territorial talks, the most recent one being in the 2018 Bilateral Summit. The escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington over the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, worsened Moscow’s relations with Washington. Moscow was concerned that Japan, a staunch US ally, might use the islands as military bases, against Russia, if the islands were to be given away. Thus, given this reason, no progress over the dispute was possible.
Post the visit of President Vladimir Putin to Japan in 2018, both sides even agreed to develop joint venture projects on the disputed islands, with the then Japanese Prime Minister Mr. Shinzo Abe announcing an eight-point program to boost economic cooperation with Russia, and a “New Approach” of talks with Moscow regarding the claims over the islands.
Japan has long claimed sovereignty over the four islands. Over the period it has adopted a “Two plus Alpha” strategy which demands handover of two islands to Japan and visa-free access to the larger ones.
The conflict was even more complicated when the Putin Government decided to militarize the islands by deploying its advanced S-300V4 Air Defence system, which has drawn sharp criticism from Japan and the Air Force Let. Gen Kevin Schneider, commander of the US forces in Japan.
Apart from the geostrategic locations of the islands, they also act as a potential reserve of large resources. The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are even speculated to have large reserves of oil and gas. Recent studies have also found the deposits of rhenium on the Kudraivy Volcano on Iturup. Considering the above-mentioned factors, neither Russian Federation nor Japan would like to miss out on these islands.
What’s interesting to watch is the policy that will be adopted by the newly elected Japanese Prime Minister, implementing the lessons he learned from his predecessor Abe, and the approach he adopts in dealing with Russia. Japan cannot afford to have two giant, hostile neighbours. Mr. Suga is expected to adopt a softer approach of engaging with Russia economically, currently when the Russian economy is itself in shambles due to COVID-induced recession.
On the Russian side, giving away the Kuril Islands would be seen as clearly interpreted as a sign of Russian weakness. This would further mount the pressure by the West, for withdrawing its troops from Crimea, a move that is bound to bring more humiliation to the Kremlin. The Russian Duma amending the Constitution in 2020 and giving Vladimir Putin sweeping powers over Russia’s Foreign Policy Agenda along with giving him the right to remain the President till 2036, will make the process of talks even more difficult. With the government turning into a totalitarian regime, it will be even more difficult for Washington, its allies and the International agencies to pressurize the Russian government to stick to International Laws.
Thus, given the current circumstances, the Suga administration is bound to be in a dilemma. However, it is expected that he continues the economic integration with the ASEAN, and other democracies in the Indo-Pacific and even maintain cordial relations with his Russian counterpart. How both the stakeholders resolve the dispute bilaterally, will be definitely an interesting watch in the upcoming days.