The Knotty Kuril Island Problem

Last month, the former Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara took his second trip to the disputed Kuril Islands, although the tone of his visit was far different from the frosty exchanges of late.

Maehara, who resigned his post in March amid a funding scandal but returned to the political stage to contest unsuccessfully for the premiership with the resignation of Naoto Kan in August, surveyed the landscape of Iturup – the largest island in the Southern Kuril chain – but refrained from inflammatory remarks on territorial ownership or reconciling the long stalled peace treaty that dates back to World War II. Instead, Maehara – a youthful and ambitious politician with eyes still on ultimately leading his country – took a nuanced approach and encouraged stronger ties between Japan and Russia, especially with regard to trade and investment.

Japan’s long running territorial dispute with Russia over the Kurils (which the Japanese refer to as the Northern Territories) continues to be a thorn in the diplomatic armor of both sides and seems to resurface in a predictable cycle. The issue remains dynamic and its relative importance ebbs and flows in context with political developments in Moscow and Tokyo.

The row reached its nadir last November when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made an unprecedented visit to Kunashir Island. During the visit, Medvedev indicated Moscow’s intention to “step up” its strategic footprint on the Kurils, explaining that “there should be sufficient weaponry there to ensure the security of the islands as an unalienable part of Russia.”

Japan responded by lashing out at the visit when Naoto Kan labeled the move as “unforgiveable” and “an outrage”. Then in June of this year, the United States brought the issue back in the spotlight by reaffirming its support for the islands being returned to Japan on the heels of its bilateral security consultations with Tokyo.

This year had begun with a subdued tone by both sides. In Japan, the Kan administration and its successor, headed by Yoshihiko Noda, has been overwhelmed with the recovery efforts from the Tohoku earthquake and political infighting within the DPJ party. Russia has had its distractions too, including Moscow’s airport bombing in January as it ramps up to host the winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

Tokyo continues to view the Kurils as an irredentist struggle, while Moscow seems content to ride the status quo so long as bilateral relations continue relatively smoothly. Despite this, the Russian Foreign Ministry did not hesitate to condemn what it views as US interference in a bilateral dispute. The ministry released a statement in June, after the US’s re-affirmation of support for Japan’s claim, noting that “questioning Russia's sovereignty over the South Kuril Islands, which are part of Russia's territory as a result of World War II, as enshrined in the UN Charter, is inappropriate."

Moscow further hardened its stance by claiming that it does not view a formal peace treaty ending World War II – which remains unsigned due to the Kuril dispute – as an essential step for positive relations with Japan.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic that the Kuril dispute will not comprehensively inhibit relations between Tokyo and Moscow. The Russian government has repeatedly stressed its desire to have a stronger relationship with Japan and believes this is possible despite their disagreement over the Kurils. And there are signs that Moscow is willing to make some concessions, as senior officials have recently indicated that they are willing to step back from last year’s rhetoric about significantly increasing Russia’s military presence on the islands.

Tokyo still cooperates with the Kremlin on several important international issues such as nuclear disarmament, counterterrorism, drug smuggling and the Six-Party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In addition, both countries have committed to deepening their economic ties in the areas of energy cooperation, information technology and nation-to-nation exchanges. Maehara’s visit provides a chance for policy makers in Tokyo to re-think about Japan’s engagement with Russia and look at the benefits that a renewed policy might accrue.

This is the good news. The bad news is that, while the Kuril dispute has not made the two enemies, it has thus far derailed the potential for a broader “strategic” relationship. As Japan’s strategic environment continues to evolve, it will need to decide where to look for partners. Historically, the Japanese have relied on their security alliance with the United States – a partnership which will continue for the foreseeable future.

This relationship however should not induce Japan to have a myopic vision of its geopolitical interests. As China continues to emerge, Japan will need to seek new strategic relationships in the region to balance the notion of a Sino-centric continent. The divide between the two is complex – and is perpetuated by more than history. The real separation relates to different visions of the future of the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan’s differences with China, North Korea and – to a lesser degree -- South Korea have presented an opening for repairing relations with Russia. In fact, a closer relationship with Moscow would also serve to improve Japan’s ties with China and Korea by demonstrating its willingness to compromise on lingering issues from the Second World War. For officials in Moscow and Tokyo, resolving the territorial dispute will not come without cost – both politically and economically. In 1956, both sides nearly agreed to a compromise solution in which the Soviet Union agreed to return the two smaller islands (Shikotan and Khabomai) upon the signing of a peace treaty between the two states from World War II. While the two states agreed on a joint declaration, they could not conclude the peace treaty because both sides found the other’s demands unacceptable.

Throughout years of negotiations, a myriad of ideas have been introduced such as revolving the administration of certain islands, or different combinations of which islands would be returned. Thus far none of these solutions has been enough to break the stalemate. While it will take political courage to navigate through such thorny issues, it is imperative that Japan and Russia commit to resolving the dispute if they wish to hedge the emergence of China and assume primary roles in charting the future strategic course of the region.

(Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a Canada-based public sector analyst on the Asia-Pacific region in issues relating to nuclear non-proliferation, arms control, counterterrorism, and intelligence.)