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Russia–Japan territorial disputes, divisive as ever

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In Brief

The Russia–Japan territorial dispute over the southern Kurils/Northern Territories is heating up again. Although the Cold War has long ended, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri Island on 1 November 2010 prompted Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to call it ‘an unforgivable outrage.’

Japan claims that the islands of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri (Kunashir in Russian), and Etorofu (Iturup) are not part of the territories it surrendered in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty.


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The peace accord, Japan claims, did not specify to whom the renounced territories would belong, and the Soviet Union (now Russia) could not and cannot base their sovereignty claims to the islands on a treaty the USSR refused to sign.

Moscow and Tokyo agreed in their joint declaration of 1956, which restored their diplomatic relations, that the Soviet Union would return the disputed islands to Japan upon conclusion of a bilateral peace treaty. Both countries ratified the joint declaration. In 1991, the Japanese were encouraged when General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that there was a territorial dispute between the two countries. They even became hopeful when the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, agreed in 1993 that the 1956 joint declaration was still valid. Since then, Japan has continued to insist that all of the disputed islands are inherent territory of Japan and Russia’s control of the islands is illegal.

Moscow’s position is essentially that Japan has no claim to the territories because it surrendered the entire Kuril chain in the San Francisco peace treaty. The victorious Soviet Union, therefore, acquired the islands as well as the southern half of Sakhalin Island (the northern half was already Soviet territory before the Second World War) as justly deserved spoils of war — as agreed in the Yalta Conference among the allied leaders.

In recent years, the Russian leadership has intensified their appeal to patriotism and used the islands issue to this end. On 7 July 2010, the Russian Duma passed legislation establishing 2 September as the day to commemorate the end of the Great Patriotic War; that date in 1945 being the day when Japan signed the instrument of surrender. On 28 September, President Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement commemorating the 65th anniversary of the war and pledged further strengthening of the Sino–Russian strategic alliance. This was followed by the Russian president’s visit to Kunashiri Island, as noted above, and similar visits to the disputed territories by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, other key ministers and high-ranking officials.

Ironically, the Russian leaders’ visits to the disputed islands demonstrate Moscow’s commitment to develop the long-neglected economy of the Russian Far East, including the southern Kurils; an effort in which Russia regards Japan as an important partner. Japan also sees mutual benefits in closer economic ties with Russia, particularly in the energy field.

Although the eventual outcome of the territorial dispute is anybody’s guess, there is no question that the level of trust between Moscow and Tokyo must improve substantially if a mutually acceptable solution is to be reached. Several essential elements of trust-building efforts can be outlined.

First, it is essential to improve and expand the relationship between the two governments so as to withstand the ups and downs of diplomatic tensions. The two countries need a more comprehensive engagement, particularly in the economic and social spheres, at both national and subnational levels, especially involving communities in the Russian Far East and northern and western regions of Japan.

Second, Moscow and Tokyo should advance cooperation over transnational and global challenges; for example, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, climate change, public health (like HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases), alternative energy development, space exploration and new materials development.

Third, both sides should encourage creative and innovative ideas that go beyond long-held perspectives which have proven ineffective. For one, Russia might consider returning the Habomais and Shikotan to Japan upon conclusion of a peace treaty, where the two sides commit to negotiating the status of the remaining islands. While the negotiations continued, Japan should offer assistance and encourage private investment in the development of the entire Northern Territories. Both Russians and Japanese might live side-by-side, with disputes between them to be settled in an arbitration board or a court of their choice.

Finally, for any compromise to withstand inevitable criticisms at home, the political leaders in Moscow and Tokyo must build their credibility not on their ability to fan nationalism among their citizens but on their ability to ensure sustainable economic development and social stability.

Professor Tsuneo Akaha is Professor of International Policy Studies and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, California.

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