Geopolitical Dimensions of Russo-Japanese “Territorial Disputes” over Kuril Islands and the Indo-Pacific Security Structure

Dr. Nalin Kumar Mohapatra

August 04. 2019

Image Courtesy: dw.com

Introduction  

Two interesting developments took place in the month of June 2019, which turned the Indo-Pacific region into a global hotspot. The successful hosting of the Osaka G-20 Summit and the participation of arch strategic rivals in the Indo-Pacific region like China, Japan, United States, and Russia also raised optimism that peace and security will prevail in this region. However, this hope was short-lived as Russia and Japan could not make much headway in resolving the “territorial disputes” which include the Kuril Islands even during their interaction at the sidelines of the Osaka Summit where the President of Russia and Prime Minister of Japan met.  This issue is emerging as a significant “flashpoint” for the Indo-Pacific security structure and may contribute to the geopolitical polarization in this region in the form of the United States and Japan vis a vis Russia and China rivalry.

 

The Context

The immediate reason which brought the “territorial disputes” into the forefront is that a few days before his departure to Osaka to attend the G-20 meeting, President Vladimir Putin answering to journalists’ queries  regarding handing  over of  the Kuril Islands’ to Japan stated, “No we do not have any plan like that.” Similarly, at the  26th Japan-Russia Summit Meeting between President Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both of them were not able to spell out details regarding how to resolve “territorial disputes” over the Kuril Islands. The Declaration of the Summit Meeting only stated that both parties “shared the view that they would continue to advance the negotiations.” The above statement of President Putin and the Joint Summit Declaration between the two countries demonstrate the total ambivalence to resolve the “territorial disputes” of both parties.  In fact, one can underline here that the negotiation between the two sides to resolve this thorny issue is not advancing much after much promises shown by the two estranged neighbors in the recent past. In November 2018, the two leaders, during their interaction  in Singapore at the sidelines of the  ASEAN Summit, agreed “to accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty based on the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956.” In addition to this Summit meeting,  the Foreign Ministers of both countries also met in the month of May 2019. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, stated that the issue would be resolved only by signing “peace treaty” as stipulated in the above  1956 Joint Declaration.

Despite bilateral relations between both the countries returning to normal, the “territorial disputes” remain a bone of contention between both them. This can be traced back to the Cold War era.

Origin of Boundary Dispute

After suffering a decisive blow at the hands of the Japanese by the Tsarist Russian ruler in 1904, the Soviet Union, took swift revenge against Japan as it got absolute control over four Islands “Shikotan, Kunashiri, Etorofu and the Habomai” part of Kuril Islands. This control was considered by the Soviet strategic thinkers as immensely important to “expand its sphere of influence across the Pacific Ocean.” [1]

However, in the post-Stalinist phase,   Khrushchev initiated numerous measures to settle the thaw with Japan, which included the signing of the above-mentioned agreements. It made provisions for the return of the  Japanese islands captured by the Soviet forces. On the other hand, the 1956  treaty made a specific provision as preconditions for the return of the islands. (Ibid, pp.34-35) The precondition consisted of the signing of a “Peace Treaty” between these two parties.

One may recall here that no such efforts were made for the signing of the peace treaty during the Soviet era.   Another contentious issue which hindered rapprochement between both sides during the Cold War period was the Soviet objections to the growing United States and Japan bonhomie. These moves by the United States also generated a source of “anxiety” for the Soviet policymakers.[2]

In recent years one major issue which is obstructing Japan and Russia’s rapprochement on territorial issues is that the latter emphasizes  that Japan should recognize Russia’s “sovereignty over the Kuril Islands.” This will facilitate the handing over of two islands (“Etorofu and Kunashiri”) by Russia. The same issue figured prominently during the bilateral interaction between Abe and Putin in January 2019.

Though there is a growing competition between Russia and Japan over controlling the Kuril Islands, efforts are going on to develop economic potentiality of the island by both the countries. Two geothermal projects which came up in the Islands in 2011 to generate energy is an instance of joint cooperation between both

Despite economic cooperation, misperception between the two countries is continuing even today, thus causing a geopolitical impasse in the Indo-pacific region.

Geopolitical Implications of Kuril Islands Dispute

Though the territorial conflict between these two countries did not turn into a full-scale war in the post-Second War phase, it has created enough geopolitical rumbling. This will put the security situation of the Indo-Pacific region in a tight spot.  The growing role of the United States in this region is also a source of concern for Russia. President Putin expressing his resentment   to the missile deployment in South Korea back in 2017 stated :

“We are always thinking of how to respond [to the expansion of US missile defense systems]. … The same situation exists with the [Kuril] islands, we are thinking of how to curtail threats to security on our distant borders.”

As discussed earlier, the Kuril Islands is quite significant for Russia’s security concerns.  Moscow is also expressing its anguish over American deployment of missiles in the East Asian region. In response, it is using both Kuril and Murmansk(located in the Far East region)  as a strategic base for deploying nuclear submarines, which ultimately will target American coastlines. Studies state that a few missiles which Russia deploys in these islands can hit Japan. The United States which has emerged as a principal broker for Japan’s security since the Cold War period is also continuing its ambition of “encircling” Russia. Operating United States’ nuclear submarines in the vicinity of Russian coastlines also known as the Japan Sea under the guise of “Freedom of Navigation Exercises” last year accentuated the strategic volatility of this region further.  Growing Japanese engagement with the United States in recent months like conducting military exercises,  the latest one being in June 2019,  as part of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” is a contributing threat to Russia’s strategic interest. Thus one witness a new kind of strategic “security dilemma” in and around Kuril islands which test Russia-Japan relations.

Conclusion

Though Kuril Islands dispute is merely a “territorial dispute” between Russia and Japan, but in recent years it has more significant geopolitical ramifications.  This is happening mostly because of the involvement of external powers like the United States, which want to fish in the troubled waters of Indo-Pacific through this dispute. While Japanese policymakers think that Russia with the assistance of China is trying to “encircle” Japan, Russia, on the other hand, perceives Japan and its proximity to the United States as a strategic threat to its “Greater Eurasia” ambition.  However, studies demonstrate that despite irritants between these two countries, economic relations are growing day by day. Thus, the need of the hour is to pursue a pragmatic policy by both the countries  and adhere to the 1956 treaty without adding any additional clause to resolve the dispute and ensure lasting peace

*** The author teaches in CRCAS, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at nalin238@gmail.com ***

Notes

[1] Amy B. Quillen,” The Kuril Islands or the Northern Territories: Who Owns Them – Island Territorial Dispute Continues to Hinder Relations between Russia and Japan”, 18 N.C. J. Int’ l L. & Com, 1992, http://scholarship.law.unc.edu/ncilj/vol18/iss3/4zp, pp. 633- 634.

[2] Bruce A. Elleman, Michael R. Nichols and Matthew J. Ouimet “A Historical Reevaluation of America’s Role in the Kuril Islands Dispute” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 71, No. 4, 1998-1999, pp. 489-504.

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