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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Tsingtao Beer and the First Sino-Japanese War

China’s economy is slowing. Its annual growth rate has dropped to 6.9%, a 25-year low. That said, Chinese exports remain a source of resentment for millions of people, whose livelihoods have been taken away or put in jeopardy by the ultra-competitive prices offered by the ‘world’s factory’.

China remains the world's leading manufacturer but economic growth is slowing
China remains the world’s leading manufacturer but economic growth is slowing

One Chinese export that appears to be growing in global popularity – certainly it is in the UK – is Tsingtao, a rather find brand of lager with an interesting history of its own.

In 1894, the modernising Japanese began a bold bid to expand their influence away from their homeland by acquiring large swathes of territory across East Asia. Korea was their first target.

Korea was a Chinese vassal state at the end of the 19th century and, as such, had the right to ask China to send troops to its aid should Korean sovereignty come under threat. Whilst the Chinese were not particularly attached to their vassals during this period – and had been prepared to cede influence to Western powers in some instances – the fact that Korea had a border with Manchuria was significant. If Korea fell into enemy hands then the Chinese homeland would come under direct threat, Manchuria also holding a place of particular importance as the birthplace of the ruling Qing Dynasty.

Unlike the Japanese, China’s rulers were stuck in a cycle of inertia under their young Emperor Guangxu, having made significant progress during the previous three decades when the Empress Dowager Cixi effectively ran the country. Oblivious to international affairs and the potential power of the Japanese, Guangxu failed to spend sufficient funds on improving the Chinese Army and Navy.

Emperor Guangxu lacked the modernising tendencies of his Japanese rivals
Emperor Guangxu lacked the modernising tendencies of his Japanese rivals

Japanese and Chinese troops were already stationed in Korea in order to ‘protect’ their own nationals and interests. Buoyed by its own increasing military prowess and the seemingly enfeebled Chinese monarchy, Japan escalated tensions by seizing Seoul in July 1894, establishing a puppet government with the authority to expel Chinese troops. The Chinese belatedly responded by sending a naval force with troops to Korea, only for one of its ships to be sunk by the Japanese Navy in a preemptive strike.

In August 1894, China and Japan declared war on one another. It would begin a humiliating process for Beijing, whose forces were routed on land and at sea by the adventurous Japanese. The Chinese were soon forced out of Korea, with the Japanese crossing the border in October. In November 1894 the strategic harbour of Port Arthur fell and by February 1895 the Japanese had overrun Weihaiwei, home of China’s Northern Fleet.

Japanese troops with modern Western weapons during the First Sino-Japanese War
Japanese troops with modern Western weapons during the First Sino-Japanese War

With defeat inevitable and mainland China under real threat, Emperor Guangxu sued for peace. In April 1895, the Japanese revealed their extravagant demands for an end to the war:

  1. Cession of Taiwan.
  2. Cession of the Pescadores Islands.
  3. Cession of the Liaodong Peninsula.
  4. 200 million taels war indemnity (nearly ten times the total of the Japanese state revenue at the time).

With a promise that Japanese troops would march on Beijing should he try and negotiate, Emperor Guangxu ordered his diplomats to accept these disastrous terms and the Treaty of Shimonoseki was duly signed.

Treaty of Shimonoseki
Treaty of Shimonoseki

Incensed by China’s capitulation and Japan’s brazenness, and the potential strategic implications of the treaty, the Western powers – particularly Russia, Germany and France – put pressure on Tokyo to revoke its demand for the Liaodong Peninsula.

China therefore retained sovereignty over the Peninsula for the time being. However, it would soon become clear that the Europeans wanted to be rewarded for pressuring the Japanese to back off.

In 1897, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany demanded control of Jiaozhou Bay in Shandong Province, including the naval station of Qingdao (Tsingtao). With German warships patrolling the coast, Emperor Guangxu agreed to give the Germans a 99-year lease for the territory. This was soon followed by the Russian acquisition of Port Arthur, the British takeover of Weihaiwei and the concession to the French of Guangzhouwan, an enclave to serve as an outlier to French Indochina.

German Tsingtau in 1898 and 1910
German Tsingtau in 1898 and 1910

It was this series of events that led to the Germans creating an indigenous Chinese lager in 1903, albeit based on trusted ingredients from the fatherland. As with Anheuser and Busch in the USA, German immigrants successfully created a national product for China that has stood the test of time.

Perhaps this can be considered one of the consolations of a particularly dark moment in Chinese history.

Prost!
Prost!