Russia and Japan Clash over the Kuriles in the North Pacific

Smita Purushottam is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 03, 2010

    President Medvedev became the first Russian leader since the end of the Second World War to visit the Southern Kuril Islands on November 1, 2010, sparking off tension with Japan, which also claims the islands.

    The clash came at a time when Japan was already embroiled in a dispute over other islands with China. Comparisons are therefore inevitably being drawn, even though events precipitating the clash between Japan and China, and Japan and Russia, are quite different. In Russia’s case, there has obviously been no physical clash between the two parties. In fact Russia has reportedly claimed that a visit by the Russian President to a part of Russian Territory is not an issue meriting such a reaction and has hoped for an early resolution of the matter.

    However, Japan registered a strong protest, calling the visit regrettable. The Russian rejoinder was equally robust. The Japanese Ambassador was summoned to the Ministry and Japan’s reaction was termed as unacceptable. The Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Seiji Maehara summoned Russian Ambassador Mr. Mikhail Bely on November 1, 2010 to express Japan’s regret over the visit. The Japanese Foreign Ministry website carried a detailed note on the meeting.1 Japan recalled its Ambassador to Russia for temporary consultations, something the media noted it had not done in the case of the Chinese stand-off. Russia Today reported that Russian businessmen due to visit Japan on November 17-19 to boost trade and investment opportunities between the Sakhalin region and Japan were denied visas for their visit.2

    Background of the Stand-off

    The Kuril Islands – Kunashir, Shikotan, Habomai and Iturup - have been under Russian jurisdiction since the end of the Second World War, but Japan has always disputed Russian control over the islands. The islands form a strategic boundary between the Russian Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. Given the increased activities of major navies and powers in the region, the strategic value of these outposts has increased. The area is also rumoured to contain substantial energy resources.

    Russia had made proposals to hand over at least two islands to Japan in 1956, but only after the two countries had signed a peace agreement to formally conclude World War II.3 But no progress was achieved on this issue and a peace treaty between the two countries remained unsigned.

    President Medvedev had announced his intention to visit the Southern Kurils around the time of his visit to China in September 2010. At that time the Wall Street Journal had reported that Japan had made a demarche to Russia warning that a Presidential visit to the Kurils would have an adverse impact on bilateral relations4 (confirmed by the Japanese MFA post above). The Japanese were also reported to have objected to Russian and Chinese criticisms of attempts to question the outcome of the Second World War during their September Summit, which was taken as a reference to the status of the disputed islands. Although bad weather eventually forced President Medvedev to cancel the trip, the media reported that President Medvedev could no longer avoid visiting the islands once the Japanese had delivered a demarche on the issue.

    China supported Russia on the Issue of the Islands

    As noted above, China and Russia, which both have territorial disputes with Japan, had supported each other’s positions on the issue of the islands during the recent Sino-Russian Summit held in China (September 27-29, 2010). In fact the support had been extended as early as the May Day (2010) celebrations in Moscow of the 65th anniversary of victory over Nazism, attended by President Hu Jintao. President Medvedev had said that the commemorations were “important at a time when some continue attempts to rethink the events of the past and the results of World War II. Russia and China share the view that these results cannot be called into question."5 President Hu Jintao affirmed that “China and Russia shared identical views in their assessment of the history of World War II, and the two countries should cooperate to resolutely defend the importance and accuracy of historical truth”. Both countries thus opposed revising the outcome of the Second World War, which had seen the USSR being awarded jurisdiction over the Kurils.

    During the Sino-Russian Summit in Beijing on September 27, two joint statements were issued which contained references to the two countries’ struggle during the World War against “fascists” by Russia on the one hand, and against the “militarists”, i.e. the then Japanese regime, by China on the other. This seems to be a new development. “Militarists” could only have referred to Japan, since it was clear who “fascists” referred to.

    Also, in the Sino-Russian Joint Statement on the 65th Anniversary of World War II’s end, dated September 27, 2010, the two countries noted they had both borne the brunt of and opposed fascism and militarism. They also strongly condemned “attempts to falsify the history of the Second World War, glorify the Nazis, militarists and their supporters and discredit the liberators”... and therefore “Revision of the UN Charter and other international instruments, the outcome of the Second World War is unacceptable”.

    In the main Joint Statement issued at the same Summit, the two sides again confirmed their wish “to prevent the revision of the outcome of the Second World War, to resist attempts to falsify its story”, etc. This came immediately after the two sides had reiterated their strong support to each other’s core interests. Russia reiterated its support for “the principled position of China on Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region” and China reaffirmed “its support to Russia's efforts to protect its vital interests and promote regional peace and stability throughout the Caucasus region and CIS countries”. In this China went further than it had gone the year before in supporting Russia’s position.6 It certainly went further than the formulations it had accepted in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which had not endorsed Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s independence (SCO declaration of 2008).7

    Thus the two countries signalled their solidarity and support to each other’s positions on their respective island disputes vis-à-vis Japan. Russia may have felt it was in a stronger position as a result, to reassert its position on the islands issue, and thus bring it to an early resolution, one way or another.

    Lost opportunities?

    Russia may also have felt the need to bring the matter to a quick conclusion as it had been dragging on since the end of the Second World War. This long festering dispute has ensured that cooperation between the two neighbours has never really reached its potential. It would have been in their mutual interest to forge an innovation and modernization partnership along the lines of the partnerships Russia has launched with its European neighbours. Japan’s economy is also facing difficulties, even though Japan is still a formidable technological and economic power, and it is keen to invest in energy resources in the Asian half of Russia. However, despite the obvious complementarity between the two economies, Japanese trade and investment in Russia is very low. Russian businessmen feel their Japanese counterparts are too cautious on the issue of investment while the other side feels that more needs to be done to improve the investment environment. Nevertheless Japan needs resources and had assisted Russia in the construction of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, or ESPO, to the Pacific Coast. It was initially supposed to carry 80 million tonnes of oil annually to Japan and even to the United States.8 There had been stiff competition between China and Japan over the direction the pipeline would take. With China now able to match Japanese financial contributions, a spur from the pipeline into Daqing, China - was later built with Chinese assistance and was launched during the Russian-Chinese summit on September 27-29, 2010 in China, which may now lead to diversion of some of the supplies (15 million tonnes, initially) towards China. But the real gainer is Russia, which can now export its oil to China, Japan, the United States and other Asian markets by sea (China also has diversified its supplies, from Central Asia).

    Repercussions in Asia

    The exchange of recriminations between Japan and Russia will not be conducive to an early normalisation of relations. The recent developments could also deepen a Japanese rethink on its overall security postures. These developments will have repercussions beyond the ambit of their bilateral relations. They also raise some queries about Russia’s emerging role in the Asian Pacific region.

    Bill Emmott in his book “Rivals” had identified China, Japan and India as the main contenders for influence in Asia, while not ruling out Russia. Russia is a major contender, having recently stepped up its diplomacy in Asia. President Medvedev recently attended the ASEAN summit and the second Russia- ASEAN Summit in Hanoi (the joint statement contains many references to an active Russian partnership and presence in the region; it is pertinent to note that some ASEAN States have their own territorial disputes with China). Russia will hold the APEC chairmanship in 2012. Russia along with the United States has been invited to participate at the East Asia Summit in 2011. Russia is playing a constructive and active role in Afghanistan and Iran, and is of course engaged in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the Eurasian heartland. These initiatives and other forays in the region therefore indicate a desire to extend its influence to the Pacific region.

    In their joint statements China and Russia have spoken about building a security architecture in Asia. For the time being there is little prospect of Japan joining this initiative. Since Russia’s “Reset” with the West is proceeding at a fast clip, does it think the tiff with Japan is of short term consequence which will be resolved as its overall relationship with the West and China improves? The United States has reportedly supported the early conclusion of a peace treaty between the two countries.9

    Or will Russia increasingly turn to China in Asia as its economic and strategic partner, leveraging it to strengthen its position vis-à-vis the West? It must be recalled that Russia has its own issues with China, such as infringement of IPRs in military technology, but clearly there are also areas of convergence.

    Or will it enter the region as an independent balancer, as the joint statement with ASEAN seems to indicate?

    The obvious conclusion is that Russia is likely to adopt independent and sometimes fresh positions in departure of established ones - in consonance with its perception of Russian national interest, engaging in new formats and coalitions, as was clear in its initiative with the Quad (Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan). This is to be expected, given the current fluidity and rapid pace of developments in international and inter-State relations.

    Relations between two very important countries like Russia and Japan is of interest to all the other countries in the region including India. India enjoys excellent relations with both countries with the Prime Minister having recently visited Japan and the President of Russia slated to visit India in December. It would be in the interests of all if the two countries could swiftly resolve the issue of the islands.

    The views expressed are personal.

    • 1. The Japanese MFA website carried a report on the meeting at http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/announce/2010/11/1101_02.html as follows(emphasis added):
      “President Medvedev's visit to Kunashiri Island contradicts with Japan's basic position and neglects the feelings of the Japanese people. It is extremely regrettable and Japan lodges a protest. On September 29, I (Minister Maehara) conveyed to you our serious concern that Russia’s President’s visit to the Northern Territories would deteriorate Japan-Russo relations. Despite the expression of such concern, President Medvedev visited Kunashiri Island this time, which raises doubt about Russian government's stated intention to enhance its relationship with Japan. The Government of Japan has no choice but to take appropriate action in response to President Medvedev's visit to the Northern Territories and the President's remarks and activities during the visit. I request you to convey this message to your government.
      In response, Ambassador Bely expressed Russia's basic position, and stated that (1) President Medvedev's visit is purely a domestic matter, (2) the worsening of Russo-Japan relations is not beneficial for both sides, and (3) he would promptly report Japan’s representations to his government”.
    • 2. http://rt.com/Politics/2009-11-10/japan-rejects-visas-russian.html
    • 3. “Paragraph 9 of the Joint Declaration of Japan and the USSR (1956) says:
      Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics agree to continue, after the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, negotiations for the conclusion of a peace treaty.
      The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, desiring to meet the wishes of Japan and taking into consideration the interests of Japan, agrees to hand over to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan. However, the actual handing over of these islands to Japan shall take place after the conclusion of a peace treaty between Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”.
      Signed on October 19, 1956 in Moscow. Ratified on December 7, 1956.
    • 4. Yuka Hayashi and Gregroy L. White; “Japan Confronts Russia in Island Dispute”; Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2010; http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870343160457552166303849044...
    • 5. http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/161.
    • 6. 2010 Sino Russian Joint Statement: “The Chinese side reaffirms its support to Russia's efforts to protect its vital interests and promoting regional peace and stability throughout the Caucasus region and CIS countries”.
      2009 Sino Russian Joint Statement: “The Chinese side expressed its support for Russian efforts to maintain peace and stability in the Caucasus”.
    • 7. Bobo Lo: “Ten things everyone should know about the Sino-Russian relationship”; Policy Brief, Centre for European Reform; December 2008; http://www.cer.org.uk/pdf/pb_china_bl_dec08.pdf
      “…during the Georgia crisis of August 2008. Russia’s formal commitment to national sovereignty and territorial integrity was betrayed by Kremlin recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence. The Chinese were upset and, for once, expressed their concern publicly. Most damagingly, they ensured that the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, gave only the most lukewarm response to Russian appeals for moral and political backing”.
    • 8. Naureen S. Malik and Angela Henshall: “Russia-To-Asia Pipeline Takes Detour to U.S.”; JULY 6, 2010; Wall Street Journal; http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870469960457534317294041282...
    • 9. http://en.rian.ru/russia/20101102/161173904.html