The Kuril islands dispute between Russia and Japan Jul 28, 2016 18:52:34 GMT
Post by ThirdTerm on Jul 28, 2016 18:52:34 GMT
Recent events have brought focus to one of the less well-known island disputes in Asia. The Kremlin announced it will deploy military forces to the Kuril Islands, or as Japan calls the island chain, the Northern Territories. This announcement came only three weeks after a private meeting between Putin and Abe in Moscow that unsurprisingly did not lead to any major breakthroughs in this prolonged conflict. The ongoing dispute over the islands is a vestige of World War II, which has become a central element of Russo-Japanese relations.
The dispute dates back to the 17th century, with both parties asserting sovereignty over the territory today because they claim to have first discovered or inhabited the islands. The San Francisco Peace Conference after WWII added to the list of prior treaties purporting to settle the fate of the islands but effectively only furthered ambiguity on the issue. While it is safe to say that both countries have some claims on the islands grounded in history and treaties, the islands have been under Russian administration since 1945. As a consequence, Japan and the Soviet Union/Russia never signed a peace treaty following WWII and the island dispute remains unresolved; lying low when relations are good, but flaring up periodically. The most serious post-WWII attempts at settling the issue in 1998 and 2001 both failed.
The islands are strategically important to Russia because they guarantee safe access through the Sea of Okhotsk to the Pacific Ocean for the Russian Navy. Russia’s military presence also serves to strengthen its involvement in East Asian affairs – although this probably does little to assuage Putin’s fear of fading Russian influence in the Pacific in light of Chinese and U.S. strength. On the other side of the dispute, the Japanese people, especially conservatives in Hokkaido, are emotionally attached to the islands and resource-starved Japan could certainly use the resource-rich Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding the islands.
Given these entrenched positions, the dispute is at a deadlock. Abe’s intentions of engaging in peace talks with Russia “with a new approach, free of any past ideas” is effectively dead on arrival. The militarization of the islands by Russia only cements the status quo and the deadlock in the conflict. For Western observers, there are two concerns that make it worthwhile to follow this relatively minor island dispute: the potential for increased Russian military strength in the Pacific, and the implications for Japan’s continued support of Western sanctions against Russia – particularly relevant given the EU’s extension of sanctions for another year.