Crews of the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier leads an F/A-18 Hornet to take off during the Joint Air and Sea Exercises, training of Navy, Air Force and Marine off the Japanese island of Okinawa.AP
The Russia-Japan relationship is a difficult one to manage. Geography and history both complicate matters between the two nations.
At the core of the dispute are the Southern Kuril Islands, which Japan refers to as the Northern Territories. The islands have been under Russian control since the end of World War II, following Japan’s defeat. Tokyo has tied the return of the islands as a condition for normalising relations between the two countries. What could be simpler?Except it gets murky at the ground level. If Moscow vacates the islands and hands them over to Japan, it’s a dead certainty that American warplanes and naval vessels will soon be crawling all over them. The presence of NATO soldiers in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic countries is a constant reminder to Russia about the danger of hastily conceding gains on the map in lieu of ephemeral promises by the West.
The Southern Kurils are of strategic importance to Russia because they link the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. The Russian military is adamant that giving up the islands would reduce the Russian Pacific Fleet’s effectiveness and decrease Russia’s security, since Moscow would no longer have unfettered access to the open seas.
According to Mina Pollmann of Georgetown University and J. Berkshire Miller of the EastWest Institute, there’s another key reason why Moscow won’t hand over the islands – they play a critical role in Russia’s nuclear deterrence strategy.
During the 1970s, the islands became even more valuable to Russia because of changes in Moscow’s nuclear strategy—specifically, the development of the “bastion strategy.”
Pollman and Miller explain: “A new generation of long-range missiles meant that the Soviets could keep their ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) in easily defensible ‘bastions’, such as the Sea of Okhotsk, and still reach targets on the United States’ west coast. Under this new doctrine, which makes the protection of SSBNs in Petropavlovsk on Kamchatka the Pacific Fleet’s top priority, the Kurils became even more important to Russia. If Japan were to regain these islands, it would mean US submarines and carriers could enter the Sea of Okhotsk through the Kunashir Strait — and dramatically change the balance of power to the Soviet Union’s disadvantage. Washington’s emphasis on targeting Soviet SSBNs in the early 1980s also fuelled the Soviet obsession with maintaining the islands to safeguard their bastion’.”
The recent trend towards greater concentration of Russian warheads onto fewer ships, as Russia transitions to a smaller but more warhead-heavy fleet of new submarines, also increases the importance of protecting each individual SSBN. “If Russia chooses to concentrate them in the Sea of Okhotsk, then its willingness to return the islands to Japan exponentially decreases,” they point out.
Pollman and Miller conclude: “Because the importance that Russia attaches to these islands is only increasing, due to the continued relevance of the bastion strategy, it is highly doubtful that Russia will be willing to compromise.”
The dispute concerns possession of the southernmost islands in the chain, named Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and the Habomai archipelago. A report on Indo-Pacific security, by Michael McDevitt and Dmitry Gorenburg of Virginia-based CNA Strategic Studies suggests both Japan and the US are responsible for the strategic logjam. It says that Japan began to raise its claim to the Southern Kurils only in the 1950s, and initially, it claimed only Shikotan and Habomai.
An American navy lieutenant looks out at sea at U.S. military sealift command ship USNS Guadalupe (L) and Japanese destroyers (L-R) JDS Asagiri; JDS Isoyuki; JDS Kurama; and JDS Haruyuki at Katsuren, or White Beach naval facility, which the two countries' forces share in Okinawa. Source: Reuters
In 1956, Japanese negotiators reached an agreement with their Russian counterparts to settle the dispute by transferring Shikotan and Habomai to Japanese control while simultaneously renouncing all claims to Kunashir and Iturup. “This deal was scuttled because the United States threatened to keep control of Okinawa if Japan accepted this compromise.”
The text of the declaration stated that Russia agreed to hand over Shikotan and Habomai but that the actual transfer would occur only after the conclusion of a peace treaty. This peace treaty was never completed, and the territorial dispute persists to the present day.
The rise of China – and its increasing assertiveness in East Asian waters – has led both Russia and Japan to focus on commonalities in foreign policy. Both countries see China as a rising power that potentially needs to be balanced and have sought to deepen their security relationship to address the changing security dynamics in East Asia.
Russia is concerned about the rapid increase in Chinese economic and political power and would like to work with Japan to constrain Chinese influence. Recent media discussions about the possibility of a settlement should be viewed in this light.
“Both sides have toned down the harsh rhetoric and are no longer engaging in provocative actions,” the CNA Strategic Studies points out. “There is clearly interest on both sides in settling the dispute and diplomats have restarted discussions about possible solutions, but neither government is yet ready to make the sacrifices necessary to reach a compromise that would be acceptable to the other side.”
Russia’s status as an energy superpower has also given it additional heft in Japanese calculations. “Japan badly needs to diversify its energy supply sources and increasingly sees Russia as a necessary ally in the region that could help to prevent Chinese domination of East Asia. On energy, Japan has sought to gain access to Russian gas and oil exports from fields in Siberia and Sakhalin, amid concerns that pipelines may be built that will send the energy resources to China instead.”
Essentially, Japanese leaders have come round to the thinking that they need to establish a cooperative relationship with Russia on a broad range of issues separate from the islands dispute.
In Part I of this series, we saw how Russian admiral Evfimii Putiatin, who led the Japan Expedition of 1852-55, played a pioneering role in opening Japan to the world. Where Commodore Perry from the United States used gunboats, Putiatin managed to open up the country to Russia trade via talks. He not only achieved the agreement to three ports of entry, but also an amicable division of the Kuril Islands between the two countries. He returned in 1858 to celebrate the signing of a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce.
Putiatin's achievements took place when East Asian waters were relatively calm. But the storm was coming. J. Thomas Rimer writes in 'A Hidden Fire: Russian and Japanese Cultural Encounters, 1868-1926' that Japan had started "looking for protection in a predatory colonial world". He adds that by the late 1800, "Many Japanese, attempting to find a place for their nation in Asia at a time when China and many other nations were being carved up by the European powers, felt that only an aggressive stance would keep the country from being colonised."
In a reprise of the 1880s, the Pacific is once again being roiled by America’s Asian pivot which brings it into direct conflict with China and potentially indirectly with Russia. Therefore, at a time when Russia’s Pacific Fleet needs quick access to the ocean, there is no chance Moscow will give the islands to Japan.
To be sure, the current standoff may not be such a bad thing. While the dispute lingers, the two countries continue to strengthen their relationship in other areas. McDevitt and Gorenburg explain: “As trade in energy expands and bilateral security cooperation deepens in the coming years, the territorial dispute left over from World War II will become increasingly irrelevant to both the governments and the public. This development could in turn allow for a compromise solution.”
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