Japan’s Northern Territories v Russia’s Kuril Islands

Can the two overcome their differences and establish a peace treaty?

Yoko Hirose

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, The Pacific, The World

12 February 2019

Progress between Japan and Russia has stalled with their inability to agree on a set of mutually beneficial terms concerning the Northern Territories dispute, Yoko Hirose writes.

Decades have passed since the end of World War II (WWII), yet a peace treaty between Japan and Russia is still to be established. There’s a major barrier that makes it impossible for them to reach this milestone in their relationship: the Northern Territories, or Kuril Islands, dispute.

Japan has repeatedly tried to recover the Northern Territories – comprising Etrof Island, Kunashiri Island, Shikotan Island, and the Habomai Islands – that have effectively been controlled by Russia since WWII. A huge difference in perspectives on the matter, however, makes negotiations extremely difficult.

In September 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to finalise a peace treaty within the year – but without any prerequisites. Since then, though negotiations between Japan and Russia have quickly progressed, a peace treaty has remained difficult due to Japan’s refusal to settle on a treaty with “no prerequisites”, especially with impending territorial disputes.

More on this: Russia-Japan island disputes: a deal is still possible

The following month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Putin met in Singapore and promised to settle the matter and conclude a peace treaty before their terms in office ended – giving them three years. Abe has even expressed his desire to finalise a treaty at the G20 Summit scheduled in Osaka, June 2019.

The 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration is regarded as the basis of negotiations. It states that the Habomai and Shikotan Islands will be handed over to Japan with the conclusion of a peace treaty between Japan and the Soviet Union.

Despite having a pre-written agreement, however, Japan and Russia remain in extreme conflict over the issue.

Russia has been pressuring Japan with its own array of requirements. Putin argues that there is no mention of sovereignty over the Northern Territories in the Japan-Soviet joint declaration, and it remains the case that Russia will not abandon sovereignty over the Northern Territory even after the hypothetical handover of the two islands to Japan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also called for Japan to recognise the outcomes of WWII, and for them to refrain from using the term ‘Northern Territories’, amongst other requests. Lavrov stresses that Russia has legal sovereignty over the islands based on the Enemy State Clause, Article 107 of Charter of the United Nations.

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Russia has even requested that Japan guarantee that its US forces not be stationed on the two islands after the handover.

It is difficult, however, for Japan to promise a particular policy stance on US forces in Japan. The Japan-US Alliance, a key determinant of this matter, happens to be Japan’s most important diplomatic policy.

Japan cannot recognise the results of WWII because it regards the USSR’s participation as a violation of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact. It is also of the view that the USSR invaded the Northern Territories illegally, as they had occupied the islands even after Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration.

Nonetheless, the Japanese government has made great compromises in its original demand from wanting Russia to return all four islands together to asking for only the Habomai and Shikotan Islands.

This resolution, however, draws strong opposition from the Japanese people, which is why the country stresses a ‘2 islands + α’ scenario. This suggests that there is a possibility for the two islands to be recovered through further negotiations in the future.

Yet, many Japanese experts argue that a ‘2 islands – α’ scenario is much more realistic. In other words, there is growing pessimism that – at best – only one island will be returned, and that even if both came back into Japan’s possession, Russia would refuse to forfeit sovereignty over them as well. In addition, some are concerned that Japan will suffer a serious disadvantage if the government hurries a treaty.

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But what is the actual significance of a peace treaty between the two countries?

From Japan’s point of view, a peace treaty could resolve the Northern Territories dispute and finally liquidate its WWII-related conflicts – at least with Russia. The two would also be able to work on their economic relations which include Russian energy exports to Japan. In addition, Japan and Russia could cooperate in keeping peace in Northeast Asia which could further help prevent closer strategic cooperation between Russia and China.

For Russia, the establishment of a peace treaty with Japan would symbolise a great step forward in its shift to the East and in its hopes to no longer be in international isolation. The Russian economy is struggling due to falling oil prices and sanctions, but closer ties with Japan could improve its economic and trade relations with other countries as well.

In addition, Russia would be able to utilise a closer political and strategic relationship with Japan as insurance for its relations with China. China and Russia may have been improving their relationship, but Russia cannot afford for China to continue regarding it as a junior partner. Russia has never been fully trusting of China either.

There are many opinions on the issue, one of them being that there is no need for a peace treaty seeing as relations between the two are currently prosperous enough – an opinion held widely by Russian experts and political officers.

It is hard to think that Putin will accept the further drop in his support rate that would follow a territorial cession. His popularity has already been falling since his decision to raise the pension age in 2018.

Accordingly, unless Japan seriously considers ways to compensate for the cession of the islands, the prospect of concluding a peace treaty in the near future seems to be quite unrealistic. With Putin’s popularity on the line, and his ongoing concerns over US forces in Japan, Russia is unlikely to simply back down.

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