Tokyo ready for Moscow deal on islands
A Kuril island. Source: Wikimedia
News coming out of Tokyo and Moscow suggests there might be a deal on one of the world’s longest-running territorial disputes.
Since 1945, relations between Japan and Russia have been mired in a territorial dispute over islands the Soviet Union seized in the closing days of the Second World War. Both sides have been moving toward reconciliation since May, and a deal may finally be on the table.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to see how far Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will go to achieve a compromise on the Russian-held Kuril Islands. Putin has said many times that Russia is not selling off its territories and Japan now insists that four South Kuril islands, Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai, were taken by “Soviet aggression” after Japan announced its surrender in August 1945. Tokyo insists that Russia occupies Japan’s northern territories.
“The islands had been transferred to Russia as a result of the Second World War, and if you want to revise the results of [the war], one may start a discussion,” Putin reportedly told Bloomberg. “In this case, however, one would have to discuss the eastern territories of Germany, the territory of the Ukrainian city of Lvov that used to be a part of Poland, and so on and so forth. If someone wants to open this Pandora’s box and start working with it, they can go for it, good luck with that.”
Putin referred to the agreement from 1956 between Moscow and Tokyo, where the USSR promised to deliver Shikotan and Habomai to Japan after concluding a peace treaty. Japan wanted the islands first but both parliaments ratified the agreement, but the deal fell apart because the Kremlin feared that US troops would be stationed on the islands. In 2004, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow recognised the 1956 treaty, but its implementation required further discussion.
The confrontation with the west over Russia’s occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine has made China Moscow’s only big partner in the world, and there are fears in Moscow about a Chinese colonisation of the vast, sparsely populated eastern territories by Chinese traders and farmers. Every deal to lease land to Chinese firms is portrayed as close to treason by the Russian media. Putin clearly wanted another significant ally in the region.
Abe’s administration started talking to Putin in May about stepping up Japanese investment in exchange for a solution to the Kuril problem. He proposed energy, transport, agriculture, technology, health care, urban infrastructure, culture and independent business cooperation. In response, Putin stressed that Russian land was not for sale but he was wanted increased diplomatic contacts.
The Abe government was encouraged enough that it recently set up a new ministerial post to oversee economic cooperation with Moscow, handing the job to the economic minister, Hiroshige Seko.
No news of a breakthrough came out of Putin’s meeting with Abe in Vladivostok on Friday Putin new attitude makes a solution possible despite his fears that Japan remains a strong US ally.
The canny president will want to ensure Tokyo is not just trying to buy the islands but is offering to become the kind of strategic ally he needs on his eastern fringe.