Russia – Japan relations and Kuril islands dispute


Japan is “playing a tactical game” with regard to the territorial dispute over the Kuril islands because Tokyo wants to tacitly promote economic cooperation with Russia and reduce its dependence on the United States, Yuri Tavrovsky, professor at Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, told Radio Sputnik.

Russia and Japan have been locked in a dispute over the islands that Moscow refers to as the Kurils and Tokyo calls the Northern Territories since the end of World War II. The latter has claimed the islands as its own for decades, leaving no room for a compromise. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to change Tokyo’s approach to the issue.

Experts say that Abe is interested in fostering economic relations with Russia even if the territorial issue remains unresolved. But there are other, external factors that have to be taken into account. “This is not simply an issue of relations between Russia (once the Soviet Union) and Japan. There is a third player involved, the United States. This issue surfaced in 1951 when the US occupation of Japan was over,” the analyst said. “At that time Japanese leadership taking its national interest into account tried to reach a mutually-acceptable solution with the Soviet Union, but Washington interfered.”

In fact, the Soviet Union and Japan were close to resolving the issue in the 1950s. In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to hand over Habomai and Shikotan under Article 9 of the Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. The transfer was expected to take place once both countries signed the peace treaty.

This is not what happened. “The Japanese eventually rejected Khrushchev’s ‘generous offer’ not because they did not want the two islands, but because the US did not let them” go through with the deal, the analyst noted.

In recent months, both Russia and Japan have indicated that they are genuinely ready to search for a mutually-beneficial solution to the issue. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have already met twice this year. In addition, Putin will visit Japan in December.

On Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that the Japanese government wanted to continue the talks “to resolve the ownership issue over four islands and sign the peace treaty.” Tavrovsky maintained that Suga’s comments were meant for the US, not Russia. This was a veiled attempt to reassure Washington that Tokyo does not want to improve ties with Moscow. “Meanwhile, I think that Abe is determined to drastically improve our economic relations since they see how our ties with China are progressing and they are concerned that they will be ‘late to this party.’ The economic cooperation that they have promised, Abe’s eight-point plan, is not really a gift to us but Japan’s wish to take part in our Siberian and far eastern projects,” the analyst explained.

For Tavrovsky, Tokyo is trying to reclaim its sovereignty by making overtures to Moscow.

“By promoting relations with us, by establishing a contact with Vladimir Putin, Abe is trying to reduce [Japan’s] dependence on the United States. But he is doing behind a screen that has the ‘issue of four islands’ painted all over it. This is what he is showing the US. But in reality Japan will foster economic cooperation and bypass sanctions because this is in Tokyo’s strategic interests,” the analyst explained.

Tavrovsky defined these interests as follows: Japan, as an influential country wants to turn into a genuinely sovereign state that does not have to listen to orders from Washington.

Eurasia News Online

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