Tensions between Russia and Japan over Kuril Islands

Tensions between Russia and Japan over Kuril Islands

The invasion of Ukraine has resurfaced the dispute of the Kuril Islands between Russia and Japan. Six decades of strained diplomatic ties are not likely to ease anytime soon. But it is only the first instance that Japan has officially described the Kuril Islands to be illegally occupied by Russia. Japan and Russia call the disputed area as Northern Territories and Southern region/ the Kuril Islands respectively.

History of the Dispute

There has been a series of treaties over the disputed Island to determine the claims of both countries but to no avail. In 1855 the Treaty of Shimoda handed over the control of the Southernmost Islands to Japan and the rest to Russia. In the Treaty of Saint Petersburg, in 1875, Russia gave possession of the Kuril Islands to Japan in exchange for control of the Sakhalin Islands. But the Islands were re-seized by Russia at the end of the Second World War.  Yalta treaty (1945), San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951), and Japan-Soviet declaration (1956) were made to solve the dispute but no fruitful results were produced.

Geographocal impotance on the islands

The Kuril Islands expand from Hokkaido Island in Japan to the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula in the south. This separates the Okhotsk Sea from the North Pacific Ocean.  The Island carries significant importance. It is a rich fishing ground with oil and gas reserves. The deposits of rare metal Rhenium have also been discovered on the island which enhances the importance of the disputed Island. The Rhenium is used in combustion chambers, turbine blades, and exhaust nozzles of Jet engines.

Tourism

Tourism is a booming industry and a potential revenue source in the global world; the Islands have several Volcanoes and a rich wildlife landscape that can attract tourists and generate considerable GDP.

Strategic Significance

Japan claims that the Islands belong to them which were annexed by the Soviet Union during the end of World War II. Moscow denied the claim. Russia has deployed its missile system over the Island which carries strategic importance for them and gives them access to the Pacific Ocean. Russia does not want the United States to militarily use the Islands. Because Japan and U.S are close allies. Moscow fears  U.S might use the Islands for commanding its sway over the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, the Island’s water does not freeze in the winter while the rest of the Russian water remains frozen during the winter. It helps Russian ships to sail in the Pacific Ocean.

Aftermoth of the Japanese official declaration

After the statement issued in the Blue Book of Japan, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced the suspension of the agreement that allowed Japan to fish near the disputed Kuril Islands. The statement said that Tokyo has failed to fulfill its financial obligation. Russian announcement came at a time when Japan and NATO agreed to conduct military exercises in the Indo-Pacific region.  Both Japan and its Western Allies are concerned about the invasion of Ukraine. Japan also shares the Western notion of imposing trade restrictions on Russia coupled with freezing Russian assets and providing support for Ukraine.

Russia will not return the Kuril Ilands to Japan

According to Soviet-Japan declaration of 1956 called for the end of the state of war, and the restoration of diplomatic relations. The agreement also revealed that two (Habomai and Shikotan) of the Four Islands will be transferred to Japan. While the issue of the two Islands i.e Kunashir and Iturup problem will be discussed during the peace treaty. But the conflict is still going on with no peace agreement in sight.

The Russian constitution bans “any alienation of the Russian territories”. The Two Islands make 7 percent of the land only but the constitution bars it to be handed over. Vladimir Putin hinted to talk about the dispute with the Japanese government but faced stern opposition from Russian nationalists. Most importantly, ceding the Islands to Japan would mean also inviting the World’s attention and insisting to vacate Ukraine. The disputed Islands and Ukraine are both rich in natural resources and strategically important to Russia. The Russian prestige will never allow both to be given up.

Reason behind the deadlock betweek the two countries

Regrettably, after 77 years of World War II, the two countries have not been able to sign a peace agreement to officially end their enmity. Vary of the growing Chinese influence in the region and Russian ambitions, China has cemented its relationship with the Western World. With U.S backing Japan has become vociferous on regional issues in general and particularly on the Issue of the Kuril islands.

Following the Russian offensive on Ukraine, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi reiterated Tokyo’s claim over the Northern Territories which is considered an integral part of Japan. Following the Japanese strict stance, Russia announced withdrawal from peace talks with Japan on the Kuril Island dispute.

What is the way out

It is not possible to fully address the interests of both countries. But a middle way could be chalked out. Russia may slowly demilitarize the Island with Japan assuring Russia that there will be no military buildup near the borders of Russia. Ainu people are native to the Island but have been deposed. The interests of these people should also be considered. An agreement encompassing the historical promises/treaties as well as legal, political, economic, and environmental issues may be considered to bring stability to the Indo-Pacific region.

Does Russia plan to invade Japan?

In November 2022, Newsweek Magazine reported that Russia actually planned to invade Japan in 2021.  Russia has been building military facilitied on Kuril Islands and some Japanese people fear that some day Russia will attack Japan.  It is Russia that controls the Kuril Islands and they do not need to attack Japan because of the dispute and there do not seem to be any reasonable reason why Russia needs to invade Japan especially because entering a war with Japan is the same as entering  a war with its ally, the United States.  According to Japanese media, the news that Russia planned a military attack on Japan is likely to be disinformation.    Click to learn more about the news of “Russia planned an invasion on Japan.“