Japan and Russia have never signed a peace treaty since WW2; Is history reigniting a geopolitical contention?December 16, 2016 in Russia
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:
- Russian Navy’s safe access through the Sea of Okhotsk to the Pacific;
- Russian military’s presence to strengthen its involvement in East Asian affairs;
- The islands and its territorial waters are rich with minerals including offshore hydrocarbon deposits, gold, silver, iron, titanium and rhenium;
- The islands are able to supply geothermal energy to meet Russian’s annual heating needs;
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.
A report released on 16 November indicated that deaths from terrorism in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries decreased last year by 650 percent despite a marked fall globally as Nigerian-based Boko Haram militants and the so-called Islamic State (IS) Group suffered military defeats at home but carried out more attacks abroad.
The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) has reported that worldwide, there were 29,376 deaths that were caused by terrorism in 2015. This figure represents a decline of 10 percent, adding that this is the first decrease in four years. GTI disclosed that his decline was due to action against IS in Iraq and Boko Haram in Nigeria, which cut the numbers killed there by a third. IS was the deadliest group in 2015, overtaking Boko Haram. Last year, IS carried out attacks in 252 cities that led to 6,141 deaths. The index however has noted that Boko Haram’s move into neighbouring countries – Cameroon, Chad and Niger – saw the number of fatalities in the se countries increase by 157 percent.
The report however notes that the groups have spread their actions to neighbouring states and regions, where they have caused a huge increase in fatalities amongst OECD members, most of which are wealthy countries, such as the United States and European countries. According to GTI, of the 34 OECD member countries, 21 had witnesses at least one attack with most deaths occurred in Turkey and France. Last year’s terror incidents included coordinated attacks carried out by IS gunmen and suicide bombers at the Bataclan music venue, a soccer stadium and several cafes in Paris in November, which killed 130 people. The index also noted that Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden and Turkey all suffered their worst death tolls from terrorism in a single year since 2000, adding that in total twenty-three countries registered their highest ever number of terrorism deaths. Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria, which accounted for 72 percent of all deaths, were the top five ranked countries in the GTI. The United States ranked 36th, with France coming in 29th, Russia in 30th and the United Kingdom in 34th.
According to Steve Killelea, executive chairman at the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) think-tank, “while on the one hand the reduction in deaths is positive, the continued intensification of terrorism in some countries and its spread to new ones is a cause for serious concern and underscores the fluid nature of modern terrorist activity,” adding that “the attacks in the heartland of western democracies underscore the need for fast-paced and tailored responses to the evolution of these organizations.”
Late on Monday 14 November, the remains of the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria were exhumed as part of a new investigation into the fatal plane crash in Smolensk six years ago. The crash killed the couple and all 94 others on board.
The remains were removed from a marble sarcophagus in the crypt of Krakow’s historic Wawel Cathedral. Prosecutors have disclosed that new examinations are necessary in order to ensure that the victims were correctly identified, noting that the original autopsies carried out in Russia contained irregularities. Indeed, several exhumations carried out four years ago found that some of the victims were buried in the wrong graves, however more than that, prosecutors say that the forensic tests may also provide new evidence about the cause of the disaster. Further exhumations are due to be carried out in stages over the next 12 months.
The decision is highly controversial as it is opposed by some of the families of the victims. Furthermore, it is being carried out without their consent. While some families agree with the procedure, 17 families appealed to church and political leaders to prevent what they called a “ruthless” and “cruel” decision. In an opinion poll last month, just 10% of respondents supported the exhumations.
President Kaczynski’s plane crashed in dense fog just shot of the runway of a former military airbase in the Russian city of Smolensk on 10 April 2010. Senior state and military officials had been on their way to a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, in which more than 20,000 Polish officers were murdered by the Soviet secret police. Russian and Polish investigations have concluded that the crash was mainly caused by pilot error. Both reports have indicated that the pilots warned officials that the weather conditions were not sufficient to attempt a landing, however a decision was taken to descent to see if the runway could be sighted. The pilots flew too fast and too low and ignored repeated electronic warnings to pull up before smashing into the ground. While the tragedy initially united the country in grief, it has since caused much division. The investigations’ findings have never satisfied President Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw, who now leads the governing Law and Justice party, which took office a year ago. Mr Kaczynski’s close ally, defense minister Antoni Macierewicz, has launched a fresh investigation. He has previously spoken about two explosions moments before the plane crashed and the examinations will check for traces of explosives. Indeed, about one quarter of Poles believe that President Kaczynski was assassinated, while more than two thirds of Poles do not believe the crash has been fully explained, with a majority believing that it was an accident. Previous probes have explicitly ruled out an explosion.
In October, Ecuador acknowledged that it partly restricted Internet access for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is taking refuge at its London embassy. Ecuador has disclosed that Mr Assange had in recent weeks released material that could have an impact on the presidential election in the United States, which will take place on 8 November.
In a statement, the Ecuadorean foreign ministry disclosed that WikiLeaks’ decision to publish documents could have an impact on the US presidential election adding that the release was entirely the responsibility of the organization, and that Ecuador did not want to interfere in the electoral process. The statement went on to say “in that respect, Ecuador, exercising its sovereign right, has temporarily restricted access to part of its communications systems in the UK Embassy,” adding that “Ecuador does not yield to pressure from other countries.” WikiLeaks had earlier stated that Ecuador had cut off Mr Assange’s Internet access on the evening of 15 October. The US has denied WikiLeaks accusations that it had asked Ecuador to stop the site from publishing documents relating to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
WikiLeaks has recently been releasing material from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, including those from a hack of Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails. On 15 October, the site released transcripts of paid speeches that Mrs Clinton made to the US investment bank Goldman Sachs in the past, which her campaign had long refused to release. According to the latest leaked emails, Mrs Clinton told a Goldman Sachs conference that she would like to intervene secretly in Syria. She made the remark in answer to a question from Lloyd Blankfein, the bank’s chief executive, in 2013, just months after she left office as secretary of state. She also told employees of a bank in South Carolina, which had paid here about US $225,000 to give a speech, that “my view was you intervene as covertly as is possible for Americans to intervene,” adding,” we used to be much better at this than we are now. Now, you know, everybody can’t help themselves…They have to go out and tell their friendly reporters and somebody else: Look what we’re doing and I want credit for it.” The scripts revealed bantering exchanges with bank executives, which sources say may increase concerns among liberal Democrats that she is too cosy with Wall Street. The Democratic White House candidate’s camp has claimed that the cyber-breach was carried out by Russian hackers with the aim of undermining the US democratic process. Furthermore, while Mrs Clinton’s team has neither confirmed nor denied the leaked emails are authentic, there have been no indications that they are fake.
Transparency activist Julian Assange has sought asylum at London’s Ecuadorean embassy since 2012 in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex assault allegations.
An international team of prosecutors investigating the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014 released its findings on 28 September, stating that the missile, which downed the plane “came from Russia.”
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which has been investigating the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine and which includes prosecutors from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, disclosed Wednesday that the Buk missile that hit the plane was transported from Russia. According to chief Dutch police investigator Wilbert Paulissen, “based on the criminal investigation, we have concluded that flight MH17 was downed by a Buk missile of the series 9M83 that came from the territory of the Russian Federation.” He added that the missile launcher, which fired one missile from the village of Pervomaysk, was later taken back to Russia. During a news conference, prosecutors played recordings from intercepted phone calls. They further stated that witnesses reported seeing the missile launcher move from Russia into Ukraine and presented pictures and videos, adding that the launch site was pinpointed by “many witnesses.” Prosecutors noted however that it was not clear whether an order had been given for fighters to launch the missile or whether they had acted independently. The investigative team has identified 100 people who were described as being of interest to them however they have not yet formally identified individual suspects.
An earlier inquiry by the Dutch Safety Board concluded that a Russian-made Buk missile had hit the plane. The Safety Board (DSB) report disclosed in October 2015 that the missile was fired from a 320 square kilometre area southeast of where the plane came down, with the head of the DSB disclosing that the area was under rebel control.
Pro-Russian rebels have been blamed by Ukraine and the West for shooting down the plane. At the time of the incident, Ukrainian government forces were involved in heavy fighting with pro-Russian separatists. Wednesday’s findings will challenge Moscow’s suggestion that the plane was brought by the Ukrainian military. In the past, Russia has denied any involvement, including allegations that the Buk missile launcher had come from Russian territory. Repeating those details on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated, “first-hand radar data identified all flying objects, which could have been launched or were in the air over the territory controlled by rebels at the moment,” adding that “the data are clear-cut…there is no rocket. If there was a rocket, it could only have been fired from elsewhere.” Investigators have noted that they did not have access to the new radar images on which Moscow was basing its latest statements. Separatist rebels have also denied their involvement. Eduard Basurin, military deputy operational commander at the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, told Interfax news agency, “we never had such air defense systems, not the people who could operate them…Therefore we could not have shot down the Boeing (flight MH17).”
After the attack, the European Union (EU) and the United States extended sanctions on Russia that had been initially introduced after the Ukraine conflict began. Earlier this week, Russia produced radar images, which it argued depicted that the plane could not have come from rebel-held areas. Critics however have pointed out that Russian officials have given three versions of events since the plane was shot down over two years ago.
All 298 people on board the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 died when the plane broke apart in mid-air while it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Most of those on board were Dutch citizens.