Putin looks to bolster Japan ties

Putin looks to bolster Japan ties

A Kuril island. Source: Wikimedia

There are positive signs that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is more open than before to a compromise with Japan that would end their post-1945 bilateral territorial dispute. Both sides have been moving toward reconciliation since May, and a deal may finally be on the horizon.

Putin told Bloomberg recently: “We are talking about finding a solution under which neither side will feel put upon, neither side will feel like a winner or a loser.”

Russia would have to give up territory to end the dispute with Japan, namely the South Kuril islands, occupied by the Soviet Union when Japan fell in 1945. Moscow and Tokyo were closest to a deal in 1956, when both parliaments ratified the return to Japan of the island of Shikotan and the small Habomai archipelago.

But the Soviet Union was angered by a defence treaty Japan signed with Washington, and in 1960 it told Tokyo that it would only hand over the islands after the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Japan. The Kremlin feared a US occupation of the Kuril islands, but the Japanese needed protection from the Soviets, China and North Korea.

The next chance to end the dispute came in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin but he already faced accusations of being overly supine to the west. Yeltsin decentralised authority and the Russian east was largely left alone and forced to form its own economic relations with China and Japan.

 Sea_of_Okhotsk_map

Source: Wikimedia

Under Putin, while oil and gas prices were high, he could invest in the east to stave off any threat of secession. The Kurils, with a population of around 20,000 that had been shrinking during the first 15 years since the fall of communism, received new housing, roads and a modern airport that helped establish a reliable connection with the Russian mainland. The traditional fishing industry also received state support. Moscow has planned to build a large Pacific Fleet base on one island, Matua.

But falling oil prices and western sanctions over the Ukraine invasion has changed attitudes. Tokyo joined the sanctions and talks about ending the dispute ceased, just when Russia found itself in more need of a deal than at any point since the 1990s.

Developing the region’s mineral wealth, including an estimated 30 per cent of Russia’s gold deposits and untapped oil and gas reserves, required better infrastructure, more trained engineers and improved living conditions for islanders, Moscow said. Putin also said he wanted the region to become the new base for Russia’s space programme and a spaceport is being developed near Khabarovsk. The government programme to develop the Kurils, which is due to run until 2025, requires 70 billion rubles (US$1.1 billion), more than some much bigger regions receive.

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