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The problem of territorial belonging of the Kuril Islands: the origins of the Russo-Japanese conflict and the possible solutions
Material posted: Publication date: 07-11-2018

We don't sell territories, although the problem of concluding a peace Treaty with Japan is of course key, and we would like with our Japanese friends to find a solution to this problem.

Vladimir Putin

In a rapidly changing environment in the Asia-Pacific region, where Russia today has a large geopolitical and economic interests, it is impossible to ignore the problem of the increasing geopolitical rivalry between the two "superpowers" of the modern era, Russia and the USA. In this regard, we can draw Parallels with the Cold war: both countries are keen to challenge traditional zones of influence each other, without entering into open confrontation, as well as to demonstrate their dominance and power over the world. Despite the fact that the key role in the current confrontation allotted two powers, it involved other actors in world politics, such as China, whose political and economic weight in the Asia Pacific region is increasing rapidly, that may soon turn the country into a "regional hegemon"[1], threatens the authority of the United States. The resulting tension can not jeopardize the preservation of peace and security in the world.

From 2017, when the post of President of the United States took Donald trump, the country began the formation of a new political direction[2], the aim of which was proclaimed the extension of American influence around the world, involving in particular the strengthening of a dominant position in the Asia Pacific region – one of the most dynamically developing world markets. This is expressed by the so-called policy of "America first." It is obvious that the measures taken by the us government to implement the new doctrine did not meet the interests of Russia and require immediate and adequate response from the latter.

At the moment the US is seven political and military alliances, four of which occur in ATP[3] (not counting a unilateral guarantee of protection), which is also a confirmation of the "pivot" of US policy towards the region and strengthen their positions there. Special interest in U.S. policy towards Japan, its Eastern neighbor Russia.

In the current environment for Russia is becoming particularly urgent need to establish closer friendly relations with Japan. This will ensure the safety and stability of its Eastern borders, to solve some of the geopolitical problems associated with the development of the far East, as well as to obtain valuable economic and political partner.

Unfortunately, the progressive development of bilateral relations between the two countries prevents the unresolved territorial dispute about the Kuril Islands, the military-strategic and socio-economic importance for Russia cannot be overstated. This is not to forget that Japan is in some respects a "satellite" of the United States, as a result, the country has formed a stable negative image of Russia. Is it possible, therefore, to come to a compromise and make the Kuril Islands is not a divisive force, and the unifying factor of the two States? If Yes, then exercise is necessary in the near future, while the level of international tension has not reached its peak.

The history of the development of the conflict

As already noted, the current stage of development of international relations is characterized by the aggravation of contradictions between Russia and the United States. The latter stands Japan, which has actively supported anti-Russian sanctions imposed in connection with the Ukrainian crisis. This policy of the Eastern neighbour caused a cooling of the already strained Russian-Japanese relations.

What prevented the two countries from close economic, political and cultural relationships come to an agreement on the issue of the Kuril Islands and to conclude a peace Treaty? How to build a policy of their interactions in the current conditions? What is the role of the Kuril question in the current state of Russian-Japanese relations? Search of answers to these questions involves an appeal to history and the examination of the evolution of relations between the two States.

The movement for a Urals Russian began in the late XVI century. For half a century they were able to overcome the vast territory of Siberia and to reach the shores of the sea of Okhotsk. In 1701 were opened on Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands, the development of which Russia and Japan began around the same time[4], making the debate about their "aboriginal identity" is untenable.

Until 1855, when it was first installed a Russian-Japanese ties between the two countries, there was no formal border. Both sides believed the Kuril Islands area of influence[5], which negatively affect their relationships. From the Russian side has repeatedly received the proposal to conclude a diplomatic agreement, which Japan rejected. Changes occurred only in conditions bad for the Russian Empire the Crimean war caused considerable damage to its image in the international arena and forced to go to the change of geopolitical course: the goal became the expansion of influence in northeast Asia.

7 Feb 1855 was signed the Russian-Japanese Treaty on trade and borders, also known as the Shimoda Treaty. He was proclaimed "eternal peace" between the two countries, which, however, was soon violated. In the second article of the Treaty stated: "Henceforth the boundaries between Russia and Japan will pass between you Iturup and Urup. The whole island of Iturup belongs to Japan and the whole island Urup and the other Kuril Islands to the North constitute the possession of Russia"[6]. It is around these Islands subsequently broke the Russian-Japanese dispute.

It should be noted that the Treatise does not specify the status of Sakhalin, and, although it is expected the joint Russian-Japanese administration of the island, this fact has led to many conflicts. In 1875 it was decided to conclude another Treaty of St. Petersburg, in which Japan renounced claims to Sakhalin island in Russia's favor, receiving from her in return the Kuril Islands.[7]

In the beginning of XX century, which was the beginning of the imperialist division of the world, the conflict between Russia and Japan escalated. Began the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905), which Japan sought to deprive Russia of influence in the Pacific region[8]. The result of the war was the conclusion of Portsmouth peace under which Russia was obliged to surrender the southern part of Sakhalin in the "eternal and complete possession"[9] Japan. Such a requirement conflicted with the provisions of the St. Petersburg Treaty and, therefore, such step sides tacitly stated that all previous agreements are void after the war. Therefore, when considering the Kuril Islands, the appeals to the treaties of the first half of XX century should be considered not legally justified.

Not less important is the consideration of relations between the two States after the Second world war.

In 1945, faced with the need of normalization of the international situation, especially against States-aggressors. To address issues post-war situation of Japan was created by the Federal government and the far Eastern Committee composed of 11 countries. In January 1946 issued a Memorandum commander for the allied powers of the Japanese Imperial government. According to him, "Japan is defined in the composition: the four main Islands of Japan (Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku) and approximately 1,000 smaller adjacent Islands, including the Islands of Tsushima and Islands of Ryukyu (Nansei)"[10]. In item "c" indicated that the area of the Kuril Islands is excluded from the part of Japan[11]. Thus, thanks to the Memorandum of the Soviet Union failed to resolve a number of the most important tasks of the geopolitics – the return of southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands[12].

At that time, the peace Treaty between the victorious powers and Japan had not yet signed. However, it became obvious that the USSR and the USA at the end of the hot war turned to Cold war adversaries. The question of the Kuril Islands, the U.S. was able to use to their advantage – to prevent a possible rapprochement between Japan and the Soviet Union, save its Eastern neighbor, the Soviet Union in its zone of influence and potential control over the strategically important sea of Okhotsk.

On 8 September 1951, 49 countries (excluding the USSR, Poland and Czechoslovakia) signed the San Francisco peace Treaty. Its provisions were drafted in such a way that left the Japanese leadership the opportunity to appeal the ownership of Islands. From this time began the tortuous history of attempts to establish peaceful relations between the USSR (and its successor the Russian Federation) and Japan.

In the second half of the XX century, the Soviet Union has repeatedly taken steps towards the restoration of diplomatic relations with Japan. Thus, in accordance with the Moscow Declaration of October 19, 1956, all hostilities ceased. As a gesture of goodwill, the Soviet Union agreed to "transfer to Japan the Habomai Islands and Shikotan island"[13], but only with the condition of signing a peace Treaty. However, peace talks have not been initiated because of US intervention. Pushing hard on Japan, they gave an ultimatum that if Japan agrees to transfer only two Islands by the Soviet Union, the United States will deprive it occupied the island of Okinawa and the Ryukyu archipelago. Thus, the negotiations stalled and the dialogue between the two countries was interrupted.

In the 1980s saw the growth of political and economic power of Japan, which, anticipating the possibility of territorial concessions from the weakening of the Soviet Union, took a course of rapprochement with the neighbor. The parties signed several declarations, which, however, failed to defuse longstanding tensions.

Since the end of last century and till the present time, the Japanese government actively promotes the idea of the return of the Northern territories (that's what the Japanese call the Kuril Islands). The country introduced a public holiday on 7 February – the day of the Northern territories. This, as well as evolved over decades of aggressive image of Russia as the direct heir of the Soviet Union, encourages Japanese citizens interest in solving the territorial issue, negatively affecting the bilateral relations of the neighbouring States.

Why Russia's Kuril Islands?

Having considered the history of relations between Russia and Japan, the question arises: why both countries are so actively defend their right to the possession of the Kuril Islands? Why for Russia it is very important not to concede territorial claims by Japan?

 

Figure 1. The disputed territories of the Kuril Islands[14]

First of all, the Kuril Islands – is a rich repository of natural resources. There are deposits of oil, natural gas, nonferrous metals, mercury. Numerous geothermal springs in the case effective their use can become almost inexhaustible source of electricity. High economic value are also the biological resources of the Islands: they are one of the main centers of the fisheries of the country needed to sustain the Russian economy, which is currently in difficult conditions.

In addition, the Kuril Islands represent an extremely important military-strategic importance. Between the southern two Islands are Strait from the Okhotsk sea to the Pacific ocean, not freezing throughout the year. In the case of the transfer of the Islands use Japan, Russia condemns itself to a number of issues that threaten its security. First, the Pacific fleet would be cut off from the waters of the Pacific. Out in the ocean can be ensured by bringing in icebreakers, but it will require large expenditures at a relatively low efficiency. Secondly, the unity and integrity of the military infrastructure will be destroyed. This is expressed primarily in reducing the defense capability of the Russian strategic nuclear forces, as Islands of Iturup, Kunashir and Shikotan are the areas most suitable for deployment of armed forces, including missile defense systems. Thirdly, the loss of the Islands could be used by the United States and Japan to increase their own military capabilities in the Pacific region. Especially for a first, it would mean a tactical victory in the current confrontation between two powers – USA and Russia.

The transfer of the Islands, among other things, could be the beginning of the civil division within the Russian Federation. As of 2018 in territory of the Kuril Islands is home to 20.5 thousand people, among whom the territory of South Kuril Islands has at least 11 thousand people[15]. Transfer to another state of these areas will naturally cause the indignation of the Russian citizens. A particular danger in this situation would be to represent the discontent of the nationalist groups that the refusal of Russia from the Kuril Islands can be regarded as an act of treason. Ultimately, all these circumstances create a dangerous confrontation within the Russian society.

Suppose that despite the obvious threat to such decisions, the transfer of the Islands will be held. Japan in this case would acquire a kind of "gold mine", which will be able to solve the problem of shortage of mineral resources, thus greatly improving their economic condition. Geothermal potential of the Islands will be used to provide the energy reserves of the country. This, in turn, will allow to compensate for the abandonment of nuclear energy, which the Japanese government announced in 2011 after the accident at Fukusima-1[16].

We must not forget about the above-mentioned decline of Russia's defense capability in the event of loss of the Southern Kurils. Besides the fact that the Russian Navy will lose the opportunity of year-round access to the Pacific ocean, will increase the military threat from Japan and, as a consequence, USA. Both countries are likely to rush to take advantage of the favorable position of the acquired territories, setting them on military bases with nuclear stockpiles.

Finally, the transfer of the Islands of Japan will become a dangerous political precedent, as there are territorial claims to Russian territory and from other countries. So, the example of Japan, will be the basis for claims from the Finnish part of Karelia, Latvia – Pskov region, Germany – Russian city of Kaliningrad.

Thus, military-strategic and socio-economic value of the Kuril Islands no doubt explains the desire of both sides to establish control over them.

Possible scenarios of solving the problem of the Kuril Islands

So, in order to establish strong economic, political and strategic relations between Russia and Japan was made possible, it is necessary to develop an effective solution to the territorial problem.

It is obvious that the current policy of the Kremlin against Japanese claims to the southern territory of the Kuril Islands – the preservation of the status quo and the attempts to deny the presence of territorial dispute must be changed. The question of ownership of the South Kuril Islands will not be resolved by itself. It is also unlikely that over time it will lose its relevance. However, over the past three decades, significant progress in solving the problem was not observed, since it is, in most cases, considered through the prism of the Second world war and grudges, and not on the basis of ideas about the future cooperation between Russia and Japan.

Russian analysts[17] emphasize the need for further strengthening of Russian influence in the far East region, highlighting several possible ways out of the current conflict. Generally they can be summarized as follows.

The first option. The critical importance of the Islands to meet the national interests of the Russian Federation is undeniable, so for our country, the best solution would be the preservation of the Kuril territories under his own sovereignty. However ignoring Japanese claims exclude the establishment of closer economic and cultural relations between Russia and Japan.

In this regard, there is a second option – to satisfy the demand of Japan and pass the Islands of Iturup, Kunashir and Shikotan. The implications of this decision have been described above, and it is obvious that it is also not viable.

Speaking of a compromise third option of resolving the conflict, we can not ignore the role of the joint Moscow Declaration of 1956, according to which the Soviet Union was towards Japan and passed the Islands of Habomai and Shikotan. Japan's claim therefore will be satisfied only partially: expanding the area of fishing in the sea of Okhotsk, the country remains cut off from the rich mineral resources of the South Kuril Islands. If this is the case of the signing of the peace Treaty? Yes, however, follow real strengthening of partnerships between countries, it is hard to say, because such a compromise does not meet the expectations of any of the parties.

Finally, there is a fourth option to resolve the dispute. Its essence is to turn the southern territory of the Kuril Islands managed in a joint Russian-Japanese administration of the area, the development of which will meet the needs of both parties. The implementation of this plan will necessitate the resolution of a number of problematic issues:

  1. The possibility of demilitarization of the South Kuril Islands and the status of the Straits. The resolution of this issue will require special attention because of the Russian Federation for the demilitarization of the territories of great strategic importance, will diminish the defense capability of the state and the destruction of the holistic military infrastructure. Therefore, it is necessary not only to sign a peace Treaty, but also to provide a long-term partnership and political trust between Russia and Japan with their legal authorization. The result will be a weakening of US influence on Japanese politics.
  2. The issue of exploitation of natural resources. For Japan, access to rich deposits of minerals is of fundamental importance, but today most of the development on the Islands is carried out in accordance with Russian projects. Fair, in our opinion, will be the preservation of existing developments for Russia. In respect of the remaining deposits, their exploration and use should adhere to the principles of equality.
  3. Ensuring cultural integration of the two peoples and their comfortable cohabitation in the United territory of the two States. This can be achieved by improving the social infrastructure of the Kuril Islands, the introduction of a visa-free regime for citizens of Russia and Japan, construction of new schools with teaching in Russian and Japanese languages and competent management of the joint Russian-Japanese administration.

Thus, it is the latter which describes the way out of the conflict appears to be most beneficial to both parties. Joint development of natural resources, direct public investment and the joint efforts in implementation of the Russian-Japanese projects will be able to raise the standard of living of people in the Kuril Islands and to fully unleash the potential of this unique area.

It is important to note that such expectations regarding further development of Russian-Japanese relations expressed not only by Russian specialists. The Japanese scientist Kaoru, Iokibe, noting the complexity of these relations at the present stage, emphasizes that Japan is strengthening ties with Russia is a priority, because "Russia is the only surrounding Japan, countries with which it had no special problems, because Tokyo is in a difficult relationship with neighbors in the region"[18]. The solution to the current dispute, in his opinion, will take a long time and will require the signing of numerous agreements. But all this will not be possible as long as the parties have not established a relationship of trust and public opinion is not ready for mutual concessions[19].

In conclusion, we emphasize that despite the presence of territorial, economic, and political difficulties that have deep historical roots, the establishment of good neighborly relations between Russia and Japan, according to the national interests of both countries, possible. Often during the negotiations the need to create zones of economic activity that brings States to implement the above-described fourth variant of development of relations.

In October of this year Japanese Prime Minister Singha Abe announced Japan's bid to open "a new era in relations with the Russian side"[20], implying the deployment of active cooperation in many fields: defense, industry, agriculture. For Russia, this cooperation will bring obvious benefits, because, objectively, it is not under the power of self-realization of programs of development of the far East region. Japan, in turn, the rapprochement with Russia will become possible to solve the number of pressing socio-economic problems and conducting their own foreign policy free of US pressure.

Thus, cohesion policy brings many economic benefits both to Russia and Japan, while maintaining their authority in the global political arena. Even if after decades the Kuril Islands will not receive the status of "Union territory", turning them into a unifying factor of the two States, strengthening their international position and facilitate their productive development, it is possible already now. It depends on further actions of the leaders of both countries and their desire for constructive dialogue.

The list of used sources and literature

  1. Abe has promised to open a new era in relations with Russia // Газета.Ru. Mode of access: https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/news/2018/10/24/n_12203461.shtml (date accessed: 04.11.2018);
  2. Vandam (Edrikhin) A. E. Geopolitics and geostrategy. Moscow: Kuchkovo pole, 2002. 269 p.
  3. Weber, Y., D. Trenin the future of Pacific Russia // Working papers Carnegie. M.: Moscow Carnegie Center. 2013. 26 p.;
  4. Grimm, E. D., Collection of treaties and other documents on the history of international relations in the far East (1843-1925) // Proceedings of the Moscow Institute of Oriental studies. N. N. Narimanov. V. VI. M. 1927. Mode of access: http://www.vostlit.info/Texts/Dokumenty/China/XIX/1840-1860/Sb_dog_Dal_vost/index.htm (date accessed: 20.10.2018);
  5. Declarations, statements and communiqués of the Soviet government with foreign governments. 1954-1957. M: Gospolitizdat, 1957. Mode of access: https://www.prlib.ru/item/370124 (date accessed: 20.10.2018);
  6. Memorandum from the commander of the allied powers of the Japanese Imperial government from January 29, 1946 // the Joint collection of documents of the foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation and the Ministry of foreign Affairs of Japan on the history of territorial demarcation between Russia and Japan. Mode of access: https://www.ru.emb-japan.go.jp/itpr_ru/1941.html#12(date accessed: 20.10.2018);
  7. Iokibe K., Japan and Russia: the interpretation of history and territorial problem // Working papers Carnegie. M.: Moscow Carnegie Center. 2016. 27 p.;
  8. Bride China // Tape.ru. Mode of access: https://lenta.ru/articles/2015/10/18/japan/ (accessed: 04.11.2018);
  9. Russian Kuril Islands: past and present: SB. Doc. in the history of the formation of Rus-jap. and advice.YAP. border. M., 1995. 181 C.;
  10. A collection of treaties of Russia with other States. 1856-1917. Moscow: GOS.publishing house of polit. literature, 1952. Mode of access: http://www.hist.msu.ru/ER/Etext/FOREIGN/portsmth.htm (date accessed: 20.10.2018);
  11. A collection of border agreements, concluded by Russia with the neighbouring States. SPb.: Type. The trenka and Fuse, 1891. Mode of access: https://www.prlib.ru/item/442959 (date accessed: 20.10.2018);
  12. Svechin A. A. Strategy. Moscow: State military publishing house, 1926. 396 p.;
  13. Snesarev, A. E. Military geography of Russia. (Part of total). Ed. second. SPb., 1910. 89 p.;
  14. Streltsov D. problems of the historical past in Russian-Japanese relations // materials of the Carnegie. M.: Moscow Carnegie Center. 2016. 33 p.;
  15. Fukushima: the story of the disaster from March 2011 to March 2014. Mode of access: http://www.greenpeace.org/russia/ru/press/reports/Fukushima_3_years/ (accessed: 03.11.2018).
  16. The population of the Russian Federation for municipalities on January 1, 2018. Mode of access: http://www.gks.ru/wps/wcm/connect/rosstat_main/rosstat/ru/statistics/publications/catalog/afc8ea004d56a39ab251f2bafc3a6fce (date accessed: 30.10.2018).
  17. National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Mode of access: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf (date accessed: 19.10.2018).

 

[1] Weber J., Trenin D. the future of Pacific Russia // Working papers Carnegie. M.: Moscow Carnegie Center. 2013. P.7.

[2] National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Mode of access: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf (date accessed: 19.10.2018).

[3] the Treaty of mutual cooperation and security between the United States and Japan (DSSA); the mutual defense Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of the Philippines (DSAF); the mutual defense Treaty between the Republic of Korea and the United States of America; "the Pacific Pact of security" (ANZUS).

[4] A. E. Snesarev Military geography of Russia. (Part of total). Ed. second. SPb. 1910. P.24.

[5] Grimm, E. D., Collection of treaties and other documents on the history of international relations in the far East (1843-1925) // Proceedings of the Moscow Institute of Oriental studies. N. N. Narimanov. V. VI. M. 1927. Mode of access: http://www.vostlit.info/Texts/Dokumenty/China/XIX/1840-1860/Sb_dog_Dal_vost/index.htm (date accessed: 20.10.2018); Russian Kuril Islands: past and present: SB. Doc. in the history of the formation of Rus-jap. and advice.YAP. border. M., 1995. 181 p.

[6] ibid.

[7] the Collection of boundary treaties concluded by Russia with the neighbouring States. SPb.: Type. The trenka and Fuse, 1891. S. 292–299. Mode of access: https://www.prlib.ru/item/442959 (date accessed: 20.10.2018).

[8] Svechin A. A. Strategy. Moscow: State military publishing house, 1926. P. 182.

[9] a Collection of treaties of Russia with other States. 1856-1917. Moscow: GOS.Izd-vo polit. literature, 1952. Mode of access: http://www.hist.msu.ru/ER/Etext/FOREIGN/portsmth.htm (date accessed: 20.10.2018).

[10] Memorandum From the commander of the allied powers of the Japanese Imperial government from January 29, 1946 // the Joint collection of documents of the foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation and the Ministry of foreign Affairs of Japan on the history of territorial demarcation between Russia and Japan. Mode of access: https://www.ru.emb-japan.go.jp/itpr_ru/1941.html#12 (date accessed: 20.10.2018).

[11] ibid.

[12] Vandam (Edrikhin) A. E. Geopolitics and geostrategy. Moscow: Kuchkovo pole, 2002. S. 255.

[13] Declarations, statements and communiqués of the Soviet government with foreign governments. 1954-1957. M: Gospolitizdat, 1957. Mode of access: https://www.prlib.ru/item/370124 (date accessed: 20.10.2018).

[14] Weber, J., Trenin D. the future of Pacific Russia // Working papers Carnegie. M.: Moscow Carnegie Center. 2013. P.4.

[15] the population of the Russian Federation for municipalities on January 1, 2018. Mode of access: http://www.gks.ru/wps/wcm/connect/rosstat_main/rosstat/ru/statistics/publications/catalog/afc8ea004d56a39ab251f2bafc3a6fce (date accessed: 30.10.2018).

[16] Fukushima: the story of the disaster from March 2011 to March 2014. Mode of access: http://www.greenpeace.org/russia/ru/press/reports/Fukushima_3_years/ (accessed: 03.11.2018).

[17] Vandam (Edrikhin) A. E. Geopolitics and geostrategy. Moscow: Kuchkovo pole, 2002. 269 S.; Weber, U., D. Trenin the future of Pacific Russia // Working papers Carnegie. M.: Moscow Carnegie Center. 2013. 26 C.; Streltsov D. problems of the historical past in Russian-Japanese relations // materials of the Carnegie. M.: Moscow Carnegie Center. 2016. 33 C.

[18] The China Bride // Band.ru. Mode of access: https://lenta.ru/articles/2015/10/18/japan/ (accessed: 04.11.2018).

[19] K. Iokibe, Japan and Russia: the interpretation of history and territorial problem // Working papers Carnegie. M.: Moscow Carnegie Center. 2016. S. 23.

[20] Abe has promised to open a new era in relations with Russia // Газета.Ru. Mode of access: https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/news/2018/10/24/n_12203461.shtml (date accessed: 04.11.2018).

 

Zerizer E. K.


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