Creative thinking on the Kuril Islands

May 16, 2005 02:00 AM

by Kosuke Takahashi

Japan's strained diplomatic relationship with China and South Korea should not eclipse a key player whose relationship with Tokyo could set the tone in balance-of-power politics and economic integration in East Asia over the next decades. That player is Russia, and the overarching, festering issue between Japan and Russia is sovereignty over the four Russian-held Kuril Islands. Recently, some Japanese experts on Russia have been calling for greater flexibility and compromise by Tokyo, which has always demanded the return of all four islands.
There's no sign yet of official acceptance, but pressures are building for Japan to strike a deal and accept what is called a "two islands plus alpha" solution -- still to be hammered out. Some of the latest thinking is that Japan should give up demanding the return of all four islands and instead accept the two smaller islands and a portion of the two larger ones.

Locked in a diplomatic dispute over the islands, called the Northern Territories by the Japanese and the Southern Kurils by the Russians, conciliatory approaches are beginning to crop up among Russia experts in Japan. While the majority remain determined to wage a long, drawn-out contest with Russia and support Japan's official demand for the return of all four islands, an increasing number of experts have begun to float the possibility of compromise, arguing that better relations with Moscow are essential at a time when Japan's relations with China and South Korea have plummeted.
They argue that Japan and Russia need to find common ground, a point of compromise on the Kurils. Their approach, the two islands plus alpha solution, is something less than a 50:50 split of the total area, more like 37:63, with the smaller part going to Japan. "Two" refers to the two smaller islands Russia promised to return to Japan in 1956 and that Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested last November Moscow could relinquish -- they represent just 7 % of the entire disputed area. "Alpha" refers to some portion of the remaining two bigger islands.

The Southern Kurils, or Northern Territories, consist of three islands -- Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan -- and the uninhabited Habomai group of islets, also termed an island. The islands are believed to be rich in natural resources, such as oil and gas, and the area is a major fishing grounds. Russia has offered to return the two smaller territories -- Shikotan Island and the uninhabited Habomai group of islets, while retaining the larger, more valuable islands. Tokyo has rejected the offer and has sought the return of all four territories.
Moscow has never accepted the return of more than two islands, while Tokyo has never accepted the return of less than four islands.

Island Name Area (sq km)
Etorofu Island 3,184.0
Kunashiri Island 1,498.8
Shikotan Island 253.3
Habomai islets 99.9
Total 5036.0
Source: The Geographical Survey Institute

Japan and Russia have not concluded a peace treaty since the end of World War II, 60 years ago, due to this unsolved territorial dispute. Currently, the two sides are engaged in a covert but fierce war of diplomatic nerves over President Putin's hoped-for but deliberately unscheduled visit to Tokyo. The delay is attributed by Japan to Russia's foot-dragging over the Kurils. Putin told Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi last November on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit in Santiago, Chile, that he would visit Japan in early 2005, but the trip has yet to be scheduled, due apparently to differences between Moscow and Tokyo over the territorial dispute.
Experts in Tokyo are now watching to see whether Koizumi will visit Russia during the celebration of the 60th anniversary of victory in World War II, to be held in Moscow on May 9 -- that could be an indicator of Japanese flexibility. Since Koizumi is currently facing severe criticism in the Diet, or parliament, over his top priority, reform of the postal system, whether he could spare time to visit Moscow remains to be seen. If he does go, this would be indicative of Tokyo's serious intention to resolve the territorial issue and improve ties between the two countries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be in Japan on May 30-31 to lay the groundwork for Putin's promised trip later this year.
"There is an invitation [from Japan] and the visit cannot be postponed," Lavrov was quoted as telling. Analysts believe Lavrov made the remarks to indicate to Japan that Russia is ready to make Putin's visit to Japan a reality if Koizumi attends the Moscow ceremony.
Koizumi indicated on April 8 that he is considering visiting Russia around May 9 if parliamentary circumstances allow him to do so.
"We are considering it... I would like to visit if possible but it is a weekday," Koizumi told in response to questions about attending the Russian ceremony.

Conservative Japanese media, such as The Sankei Shimbun, staunchly oppose such a visit to Russia, which they say might be viewed by both the Japanese and Russian public as Tokyo's weak-kneed diplomacy in the territorial dispute with Moscow.
"Nothing but the political shutdown by the two countries' top leaders can solve this long-standing territorial dispute," Shigeki Hakamada, a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University professor in Tokyo and an expert on Russian affairs, said. "Both sides need to make some concessions."
Nobuo Shimotomai, professor of law at Hosei University and an expert on Russian politics and history, holds similar views. He noted that calls for the two islands plus alpha formula are growing steadily among Russia experts in Tokyo.
"President Putin has played a diplomatic card suggesting the return of two of the four islands, and this year will be a decisive time for the Japan-Russia talks on the Northern Territories and future ties," Shimotomai told.

Akihiro Iwashita, a professor at Hokkaido University's Slavic Research Centre, echoed their views.
"Solving this issue will be accompanied by painin the two countries' domestic politics," Iwashita told. "But Koizumi and Putin have leadership ability to make a breakthrough on this territorial dispute."
As examples of such leadership, Iwashita cited Koizumi's two surprise visits to North Korea, and Putin's visit to Beijing last October that solved the final settlement of Russia's long-standing border disputes with China. Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao put an end to their remaining territorial disputes over three islands, reaching a 50:50 agreement in their negotiations over borders.

A bitter legacy of World War II
For Japan, the dispute over the Northern Territories/Southern Kurils is a bitter legacy of World War II. On August 9, 1945, three days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the day on which Nagasaki suffered from the bombing, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, in violation of the Neutrality Pact that Tokyo signed in 1941. Four days after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration announcing Japan's surrender to the Allied powers, Soviet troops undertook aggressive action, moving on the Kuril Islands, which then belonged to Japan. By September 5, Soviets troops had occupied the four islands now in dispute.
History never accepts what-ifs. But if Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration right after the August 6 bombing of Hiroshima, there could have been no Nagasaki bombing and Soviet leader Joseph V. Stalin might not have declared war on Tokyo. Then, there would not have been the island dispute today, nor would there have been nearly 600,000 Japanese soldiers held in Siberian labour camps where about 60,000 were said to have died under cruel working conditions. From a Japanese perspective, Japanese leaders at that time made a serious and terrible misjudgement of the situation.

Meanwhile, for Russia, this territorial dispute has also been a symbol of diplomatic frustration. Princeton University Professor Gilbert Rozman points out in his article in the book, The International Relations of NortheastAsia, for Russia, "Japan's demand for four islands meant overturning the Yalta Agreement and yielding to nationalist pressure".
At the February 1945 Yalta Conference involving Stalin, United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston S. Churchill, the US and Britain are said to have allowed the Soviet Union to unjustly invade and occupy these Japanese lands in the post-World War II period -- a reward for Soviet participation in the war.

In 1960, Moscow unilaterally abrogated the 1956 Japan-Soviet communique, the treaty promising to return to Japan the smaller Shikotan Island and the uninhabited Habomai group of islets - two of the four territories. Not until the early 1990s, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, did Moscow officially admit the existence of any territorial dispute with Tokyo, largely due to the Cold War. In 1993 the two countries finally issued the Tokyo Declaration that committed them to tackle the issue of sovereignty over all four islands, including the two bigger islands Kunashiri and Etorofu.
This is the reason most intellectuals here still are willing to stick to Japan's traditional demand for the return of all four islands. Although since last November Putin has offered Koizumi hard choices for ending this territorial dispute by suggesting the return of the two smaller islands, Japanese experts on Russia say the more time and effort that is put into this issue, the more Russia might and could compromise in the near future.

Experts have many views and interpretations of this issue, depending on how they see the historical records. Those who focus on the Soviet Union's violation of the Neutrality Pact with Japan in August 1945 tend to buy Tokyo's views and case for the islands. Those who stress the 1956 Japan-Soviet communique clearly accept Russia's case for sovereignty over the islands. How one interprets the language of historical documents also matters.
Japan's 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with the Allied Powers stipulated in Article 2(c) that Japan would renounce all rights, title and claim to the Chishima Retto, literally meaning the Kuril islands chain in Japanese. But amid criticism from domestic and foreign observers, the Japanese government has never recognized those four islands to be included in those renounced as the Chishima Retto, claiming those islands have always been inside traditional Japanese territory. This is the major reason why Japan has refused to call those four islands the Southern Kurils and calls them the Northern Territories instead.

Last September, Koizumi stepped up the pressure on Putin over this territorial dispute by setting out on a tour of the Northern Territories by an offshore patrol vessel. Many foreign observers said out Koizumi intentionally increased the tension and even strained relations between the two nations.
But Japanese experts such as professor Hakamada of Aoyama Gakuin University said that tour was only intended to correct a possible erroneous perception in Russia that Tokyo was to focus on promoting full economic corporation by shelving the territorial issue. This is because, prior to the tour, the two countries' economic corporation had been emphasized by the Japan-Russian Action Plan, adopted by Koizumi and Putin in January 2003 when Koizumi visited Russia. In any case, the Kurils jaunt seems to have sent the wrong signals to Russia and to foreign observers, regardless of its true intentions.

Return of three islands the best solution
For Japan, the best politically feasible remedy to settling this long-standing and festering territorial dispute could be the return of the three smaller islands -- Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai -- to Japan. This solution could be an alternative to Putin's offer to return the two smallest islands -- Habomai and Shikotan -- and might help bring Japan and Russia closer to a resolution on the territories issue.
At a meeting in Tokyo of Japanese and Russian experts on February 2, a Japanese participant suggested a 50:50 splitof the entire area of the Northern Territories. The two islands that Russia has proposed to return constitute just 7 % of the total area of the four islands. A 50:50 split of all four islands would give Japan Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai islands and a portion of the remaining Etorofu. The three islands actually only constitute 37 % of the total, but Japan could give up Etorofu as a bitter legacy of World War II and a reminder of earlier leaders' serious political misjudgement -- a lesson for future Japanese politicians and the public.

This 37:63 split of the entire area of the disputed islands could be a win-win international resolution as well as a lose-lose result in the two countries' domestic politics, since giving up perceived sovereignty always goes against national sentiment. But Tokyo should allow Russia to run the administration of Kunashiri in the near- and mid-term, permitting Russian residents to live on the island and waiting for some of them to move to Etorofu in the long term. The Japanese government repeatedly has said Tokyo would flexibly respond to the timing and manner of the return of the administration over the Northern Territories, if the islands were to return to Japan.
Another reason in support of this kind of solution is that since those smaller three islands -- Habomai, Shikotan and Kunashiri -- and the largest island -- Etorofu -- are administered by different local government organizations, it must be easier to redraw a national boundary between Kunashiri and Etorofu. Specifically, Habomai, Shikotan and Kunashiri have been administrated by the "Southern Kuril" local government of the Sakhalin provincial government, while Etorofu has been under the administration of the "Kuril" local government of Russia's Sakhalin Island.

In addition, while Etorofu is known for its self-sustaining economy, supported by one major monopolistic fish processing firm called Gidrostroy, Kunashiri and Shikotan, both closer to Hokkaido, have been suffering from economic woes and are more dependant on the Japanese economy, especially Hokkaido Nemuro's local fishery industries.
Further, given the shifting balance of power in Asia due to the rapid rise of China as a major political and economic power and the implications of North Korean problems and energy resources in Russia, cooperation between Japan and Russia is strategically very important. Experts here have pointed out that many, if not all, "silovikis", or ex-KGB and intelligence types surrounding Putin, are said to be wary of China's rapid economic rise accompanied by a "demographic threat" to Russia's Far East and East Siberia -- these silovikis were educated and trained in the 1970s when the confrontation between the Soviet Union and China was fierce.

Japan is eager to make deals giving it access to Russia's massive oil and gas reserves in Siberia, and Russia would welcome Japan's investment. Tokyo and Moscow have a clear interest in solving the territorial row, which has been the principal obstacle to putting the bilateral relations on a better standing.
Moreover, for Japan, solving this territorial dispute with Russia would give enormous momentum to settling the country's other border issues with China, South Korea and Taiwan. To the south, Japan is engaged in a sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands) and competing development of offshore gas fields in the East China Sea. In the west, it faces the thorny issue of the South Korean-held Takeshima, known in South Korea as Tokdo or Dokto. For Japan, the Northern Territories issue can leave more room for compromise with its northern neighbour Russia than other territorial disputes.

For Russia and Japan, the year 2005 is a symbolic year representing an opportunity that may not arise again. Not only does it mark the 150th anniversary of the treaty of commerce and friendship between Moscow and Tokyo, but it also marks the 100th anniversary of the peace treaty of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, signed in 1905, at the conclusion of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. Further, it commemorates the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
History will look kindly on Koizumi and Putin, if they can resolve this long-standing and festering territorial dispute once and for all. The two leaders need to hammer out a proper road map for settlement of the territorial issue if they wish to securing their places in history. The four islands are not worth a long destabilizing battle in a potentially volatile region.

Kosuke Takahashi, a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun, is a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at

Source: Asia Times Online
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