Putin & Abe Unlikely to Resolve Kuril Dispute: sovereignty, nationalism and history combine for toxic mix

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi last Friday, with the ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands set to dominate proceedings...at least from the media’s point of view.

The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very 'constructively'
The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very ‘constructively’

No agreement over the islands was expected to arise from the summit, hampering the potential for the signing of a peace treaty to formally end hostilities between the two nations, an issue left unresolved since World War Two (WWII).

Stretching some 750 miles between the southern tip of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the north-eastern coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the Kurils are thought to have first been settled by the indigenous Ainu people. Coming under semi-administrative control of the Japanese during the Edo period, the only economic activity of note relating to the islands was fishing and, later, whaling.

The changing borders of the Kuril Islands
The changing borders of the Kuril Islands

In the 19th century, Russia lay claim to the Kurils and in 1855 the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was signed giving Japan control over the southernmost islands and Russia over the northern ones. In 1875 this was overwritten by the Treaty of St Petersburg which gave full control to the Japanese in return for their relinquishing of any claims to Sakhalin, which came under sole Russian authority.

The Japanese retained control over the Kuril Islands until towards the end of WWII when, with their defeat almost secured, the Soviet Union finally entered the war in the Pacific Theater. Stalin had avoided opening up a second major front during the preceding years due to the ferocity of the fighting during the repulsion of the Nazi invasion. Despite frequent attempts by the Allied forces – particularly the Chinese whose very existence was threatened by Tokyo’s expansionist foreign policy – Stalin had no intention of spreading his forces too widely. He was, however, a ruthless opportunist and Japan’s capitulation offered the prospect of new territory in the Far East.

In 1946, the Soviet authorities expelled the approximately 17,000 Japanese citizens from the Kurils and resettled them with Russians. Despite vociferous protests ever since, the Tokyo administration has never regained any of the islands, which continue to give Russia a strategic foothold on the very threshold of Japanese territory.

Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians
Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians

Commensurate with his rather assertive foreign policy, Putin has in recent years ordered the strengthening of Russia’s military presence on the Kurils, including the construction of new operations bases and missile defence sites. This has understandably not been received with fanfare in Tokyo, particularly given the nationalist tendencies of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and of Abe himself. With the Prime Minister intent on creating a more ‘normal’ Japanese foreign policy – essentially allowing Japan to take part in more than just self-defence operations, as prescribed by its post-WWII constitution – territorial disputes such as this remain a potential flashpoint.

Both the East China Sea and, more significantly, the South China Sea have received extensive press attention for the myriad arguments over sovereignty and economic rights, with the Chinese effectively seizing control of the latter with their land reclamation projects and military re-alignment. The Kuril Islands receive less coverage, yet the failure to reach any long-term resolution on the dispute means that it too is a potential cause for inadvertent conflict between the some of the world’s superpowers.

America naturally comes into the equation. It was Roosevelt whose determination to encourage the Soviets to enter the Pacific War led to a promise at the Yalta Conference that Stalin would receive the Kuril Islands. However, when it came to signing the Treaty of San Francisco to secure a lasting peace between Japan and the wartime Allies, Stalin accused the Americans of reneging on their promise at Yalta to recognise Soviet sovereignty over the Kurils. For their part, the Americans stated that the agreement at Yalta only related to the northern Kuril Islands, not the four large southern islands that the Japanese continue to claim. The lasting historical enmity over this supposed duplicity – in addition to Cold War antagonisms – has only increased Soviet obstinacy on the Kuril issue.

With Russia and China both militarising some of the most contentious territorial disputes in the Pacific, and refusing to even acknowledge any counter-arguments to their stated positions, the prospect for an ‘incident’ to occur between two major powers cannot be overlooked. Given the nature of geostrategic power politics in the region, such an incident would likely involve more than the two belligerents.

The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential
The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential

Nationalist tension is undoubtedly high and it is fuelled by history. It would be comforting to think that a meeting between two of the most powerful heads of state may lead to an easing of diplomatic anxiety, yet the reality is more sombre.

Analysts continue to assess the most likely source of a future war between great powers. They would do well to start by looking at the Pacific, a region often overshadowed by the disasters of the Middle East but with a history of violence that is almost comparable.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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