Rocky barriers to Russo-Japanese peace
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO – Unnecessary provocations by Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are being blamed for the reawakening of a decades-old island feud between the countries, with both leaders accused of pandering to nationalism ahead of key elections.

Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara landed in Moscow on Friday to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in hopes of defusing tensions over Tokyo’s claim to four Russian-occupied islands that are reportedly host to large quantities of gold and rhenium, and whose waters have significant oil and gas deposits.

Japan calls the islands, comprising Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets, the Northern Territories. Russia has occupied the islands, which it calls the Southern Kurils, since August 28, 1945, days after Japan accepted the Potsdam Proclamation and surrendered to the Allied Powers in World War II.

The territorial dispute has prevented the two nations from concluding a post-World War II peace treaty. In a 1956 Joint Declaration, both countries ended a state of war and restored ties. They agreed to continue negotiations for a peace treaty and that Russia would hand over Shikotan and the Habomai islets. However, a peace treaty was never signed.

The dispute was reawakened last November when Medvedev visited Kunashiri, the first such trip by a Russian president. Following his visit, Russia sent more senior officials to Kunashiri, including its first deputy premier, regional development minister and defense minister. “There are so many beautiful places in Russia! Here is Kunashir,” Medvedev posted on Twitter.

Medvedev insists that his visit to Kunashiri was a purely domestic matter, and Russian experts in Japan
say he indeed focused on Russian politics ahead of the state Duma (lower house) elections at the end of this year, to be followed by a presidential election in the spring of 2012

“This territorial dispute was so sensitive for the Japanese people that Russian presidents had avoided visiting these islands,” Ukeru Magosaki, the former chief of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s international intelligence bureau, told Asia Times Online. “Medvedev forsook this traditional practice. With Russians seeking a strong leader, he tried to boost his image among the public ahead of key elections.”

“Since Russia is currently enjoying improved relations with North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations in Europe, it may think raising tensions with Japan would not affect its diplomatic relations worldwide,” said Magosaki, also a former professor of Public Policy at the National Defense Academy.

Medvedev may have considered two other factors. One is the upcoming 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok. Russia may be aiming to boost oil and gas exports to Japan as it hosts the APEC meeting for the first time. Moscow could see a hardline stance on the territorial dispute as boosting its position in economic negotiations.

A second motivating factor for Moscow could be Japan’s new defense policy for the next decade, adopted by the government last December. Tokyo plans to reduce Cold War-era equipment and organizations, especially the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) personnel in Hokkaido prefecture, the northernmost part of Japan facing Russia. Under its new policy, Japan plans to boost security around the Nansei Islands in Okinawa prefecture in the country’s south, and in the East China Sea near China and Taiwan, a move that is apparently aimed at countering China’s growing naval power.

Medvedev on Wednesday instructed the ministry to build up strength on the disputed Kuril Islands, saying they are part of “a strategic region” and “an inseparable part of [the] Russian Federation”. Russia’s Interfax news agency on Thursday reported plans to set up a military airport and deploy helicopters on Etorofu, the largest island among the four, quoting a Russian Defense Ministry source.

‘Unforgivable outrage’
Russia had in the past made conciliatory gestures to the Japanese government over the islands, suggesting the return of two of the four. But Tokyo has stuck to its traditional demand for the return of all four.

Confounding the situation was a speech Kan made in response to Medvedev’s visit, calling it an “unforgivable outrage”. Russian officials appear to have taken Kan’s remark as a personal attack against Medvedev. On the same day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized Kan of being “undiplomatic”.

On Friday, Lavrov said that the Kremlin wanted Chinese, South Korean and even Japanese investment in the islands, drawing a sharp response from Maehara.

Maehara said investments from “a third country” would “complicate the situation.” He said that the islands were “indigenous territories of Japan,” and dismissed Russia’s call for historians to resolve the dispute.

A few days earlier, Lavrov had demanded that Japanese authorities investigate what he called an insult to the Russian flag by a Japanese rightist group in front of the Russian Embassy in Tokyo.

“People who are engaged in diplomacy should try to improve foreign relations,” Magosaki said. “What Prime Minister Kan did was just the opposite.”

However, the second day of Maehara’s visit saw tensions ease, with the foreign minister saying said he agreed with Sergei Naryshkin, chief of staff of the Russian Presidential Executive Office, that their countries need to boost mutual confidence and bolster bilateral ties.

Maehara told reporters after meeting with Naryshkin that they reaffirmed the two countries’ intention to work towards signing a post-World War II peace treaty.

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