Putin-Abe summit stokes Japanese interest in Southern Kurils

Published on
December 20, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin began a two-day visit to Japan last week with talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the marine resources of the disputed Kuril Islands.

A major focus of the discussions, from Abe’s point of view, was to reiterate Japan’s claims to what it calls the “Northern Islands” – four islands of the Kuril island chain northeast of Hokkaido. The islands were occupied by the U.S.S.R. in the final days of the Second World War, and have since been incorporated into Russia. They remain the major obstacle to the signing of a formal peace treaty.

However, in practical terms, the lack of a treaty does not matter, since in 1956, the Soviet Union and Japan signed a joint declaration restoring diplomatic relations. Included in the declaration was a formal end to the war, exchange of remaining prisoners and Soviet support for Japan joining the United Nations. It was also agreed that the smaller islands, Shikotan and Habomai (actually a group of small islands) among the four, would be returned upon the signing of a formal peace treaty.

Japan has delayed concluding a peace treaty, as it wishes to also keep open its claim to Kunashir and Iturup, the larger islands, which it calls Kunashiri and Etorofu. It has sometimes floated a concept labeled “2 + alpha,” which would mean that it would receive the two smaller islands at the time of the peace treaty, while maintaining its claims to the other two.

Japanese media has spent the week before the meeting cataloging the fishery resources of the islands, which include pollock, Pacific cod, flatfishes, salmon (chum, pink and sockeye), Pacific herring, Atka mackerel, Japanese flying squid and Japanese sardines. Additionally, snow, hair and king crab and sea cucumber are abundant. The return of the two smaller islands would include the larger Pacific-side 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

For Russia however, “2 + alpha” would be unacceptable, since the strait between the two larger islands offers an ice-free passage to the Okhotsk Sea, ensuring access to its Pacific naval bases. Japan also proposes joint economic development of the islands, but while Japanese investment may be permitted, Russia would insist on maintaining complete political sovereignty. For Russia, despite the apparent futility of the discussions, the summit gives Putin a chance to be publicly welcomed by a leader of a Group of Seven (G7) nation at a time when the United States is trying to isolate Russia.

For Japan too, doing nothing may be better than settling for what was previously agreed. The islands are a pet issue for Japanese right-wing groups and for organizations of families of former inhabitants, and renouncing the claim would bring severe political backlash for the government. For Japan, it is important to keep bringing up the issue to keep the claim alive, as some future event may provide a new opening for negotiations.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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