Japan could still get a part of the Northern Territories

January 28, 2019 18:18
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) reads a statement as Russian President Vladimir Putin listens following their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on Jan. 22. Photo: Reuters

Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russia and met with President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to settle the decades-old territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands and facilitate the signing of an official peace treaty between their countries. 

Although Abe’s visit did not result in any breakthrough, and the Kuril Islands, known to Japan as the Northern Territories and to Russia as the Southern Kurils, remain firmly in Russia’s hands, talks between Tokyo and Moscow over the issue are actually still underway, which means Japan still stands a chance of reclaiming two of the Kuril Islands: the Shikotan and the Habomai. 

In August 1945, shortly before Japan’s unconditional surrender, the Soviet Red Army landed on the Kuril Islands and declared sovereignty over them.

Then under the San Francisco Peace Treaty concluded in 1951, Japan, as the defeated party, agreed to completely give up its territorial claims over the entire Kuril Islands.

However, Japan has never recognized the Northern Territories as a legitimate part of the Kuril Islands. Hence, the continuing sovereignty dispute between Tokyo and Moscow.

But just as the two countries were stuck in a stalemate over the Northern Territories, the then Soviet Union suddenly offered to consider returning two of the Kuril Islands, i.e., the Shikotan and the Habomai, under the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. 

Sixty years on, Putin still sticks to that same condition and only agrees to discuss with his Japanese counterpart the sovereignty issue over the Shikotan and Habomai on condition that Japan agrees to relinquish claims to the remaining two islands – the Etorofu and the Kunashiri. 

The main reason why Moscow was willing to return the Shikotan and Habomai to Japan in the 1950s is that it wanted to gain favor with Tokyo and tried to secure its neutrality during the Cold War.

But since Japan under the then prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, an anti-communist, right-wing politician, ignored the Soviet Union’s olive branch and formed a full-scale military alliance with the United States, Kremlin shelved the offer and has continued to occupy the Kuril Islands up to this day.

Apparently, Abe is perfectly aware that it would be totally unrealistic for him to demand the return of all four islands of the Northern Territories from Russia. Thus, during his trip to Moscow last week, he focused only on getting back the Shikotan and Habomai. Putin didn’t reject the idea outright either.

As for the Russians, their biggest concern is whether there will be US military presence on the Shikotan and Habomai once they are returned to the Japanese.

Mindful of Moscow’s concerns, Abe already reassured Putin last year that there will absolutely be no US troops on the two islands once they are back under Japanese jurisdiction.

As we can see from the historical pattern over the last 60 years, Washington’s stance has remained the key to the success of any attempt between Tokyo and Moscow to resolve the Kuril Islands dispute peacefully.

That said, unless the United States gives Japan the green light and agrees to fully cooperate, there is no way Tokyo and Moscow can resolve the deadlock over the Kuril Islands anytime soon.

And if we examine the issue from another perspective, we can probably also tell why Abe is so desperate to settle the territorial dispute with Russia and furthermore sign a bilateral peace treaty.

The US foreign policy under President Donald Trump has become increasingly unpredictable and volatile. As such, it would be in Japan’s best interests to mend fences with Russia as soon as possible so as to ensure long-term stability in East Asia in case Washington’s isolationist approach continues to intensify in the coming days.

As far as Moscow is concerned, by returning the “tiny” Shikotan and Habomai to Japan while hanging on to the remaining two larger islands for good, it may succeed in driving a wedge between Tokyo and Washington and undermine their alliance.

Either way, the Russians win.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 25

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal