MS Risk Blog

Japan and Russia have never signed a peace treaty since WW2; Is history reigniting a geopolitical contention?

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  Anxiety hovers over Japanese leadership as Russia has moved anti-ship missiles to the disputed Kuril Islands in the Pacific in November 2016. These missiles provide effective protection from landing operations and carrier-based aircraft strikes. The Russian move comes oddly at a time when the Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Japan later this month. Perhaps a retrospect in history and analysis of contemporary geopolitics will help understand better the contention between the two countries.

What is the dispute over Kuril Islands?

Under the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda between Russia and Japan, the islands of Iturup, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai had belonged to Japan. Post WW2, these islands became parts of the-then Soviet Union, although Japan never recognized the Soviet authority over the islands. In the 1956 Treaty of Peace with Japan, there was a commitment to transfer two southern Kuril Islands to Japan, which was also not executed because it was not clear what conditions were essential for the transfer and who bore sovereignty over the islands. Thus the two countries never signed a peace treaty.

Why are the Kuril Islands important?

The Russian annexure of Kuril Islands post WW2 had made Japan feel vulnerable about its northern mainland. Japan feared that the Soviet empire would expand and invade Japan’s north. As a result, Japan emphasized its military presence in Hokkaido, although the fear of a potential invasion had subsided since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Recent developments in the islands have, however, reignited this contention between Japan and Russia that warrant looking into why these islands are important to the two countries.

Japan’s strategic interest in the islands is because they are rich with natural resources, which is vital to a resource-starved Japan. Historically, to the people of Hokkaido, the idea of Japanese hold of the islands is a matter of honor.

Russia’s strategic interests in the islands include:

What have been the latest developments on this dispute?

Russia’s military developments in the islands have appeared at a time when Japan has been moving its focus to the south to deal with China’s maritime expansion. In the hope that the two countries could come to terms about the dispute, Japan is keen on incentivizing Russia with economic relations particularly when sanctions on Russia for its actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, low oil price and high inflation have been taking its toll on the Russia economy. Given the strategic interests in the islands, the gains for Russia from economic relations with Japan, however, seem too inadequate to give up the islands. Also in September this year, when asked if Russia is ready to consider giving up one of Kuril Islands to reciprocate for a greater economic cooperation with Japan, Putin said, “We do not trade territories”.

What’s in it for the West?

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent trip to the U.S. to visit Pearl Harbor is perhaps a testament to the strengthening relations between the U.S. and Japan today. Abe is the first Japanese premier to visit Pearl Harbor. It is hard to infer if this gesture is manifested as an ally subtly seeking the U.S. intervention in Kuril dispute. Russia’s increasing militarization in the Pacific and Japan’s continued support of the Western sanctions against Russia are, however, likely to generate U.S. interest on this matter, although the U.S. president elect Donald Trump, during his election campaign, have threatened to pull U.S. troops out of Japan.

So, where does it leave Japan and Russia now?

The Russian President Vladimir Putin is due in Japan later this month. While the visit is intended toward discussing economic ties and signing a peace treaty, Russia’s firm stance so far on the territorial dispute will most likely sustain. However, some minor economic deals between the two countries are likely.

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