States do not cede territory with the mere intent of improving their political and economic ties with neighboring countries, especially if their main aim is to preserve or enhance their global clout. This fact was clear for the nth time when Prime Minister Shinto Abe met President Vladimir Putin on 15 and 16 December in Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi. Since meeting Putin in the Russian resort of Sochi last June, Abe had entertained the hope that business deals, in sectors including energy, health care and transport, would ease Moscow’s resistance to Tokyo’s claims to the four Kuril islands, which lie to Japan’s north and were invaded and occupied by Russia in 1945.
Russia refuses to return them to Japan. In mid-December, some 68 deals, worth some $2.5 billion to promote oil and gas exploration, nuclear energy and the setting up of a Russia-Japan Investment Fund to identify projects that would promote economic, trade and investment cooperation would not break the deadlock over the Kurils. The slew of agreements will not pave the way for the transfer of at least two of the four Kuril Islands by Russia to Japan – which is what Abe seems to have hoped for.
What explains Russia’s stance on the Kuril Islands?
Moscow’s determination to uphold Russia’s world status and protect its strategic interests explains its refusal to transfer the Kurils to Japan. Russia sees its Far Eastern region (RFE) – which covers almost 40 percent of its territory – confirming its Eurasian, Asia-Pacific and world status. In other words, Russia’s geopolitical position entitles it to be an Asian and global power. That is why Putin views the RFE as his foremost geopolitical concern and national priority of the 21st century.
Geography and international politics and have created a strategically complicated area. Lying between the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kurils separate the Sea of Okhotsk, off Russia’s eastern coast, from the Pacific Ocean.
Tokyo’s long-held position is that a settlement of the dispute over the islands’ sovereignty must precede the conclusion of a peace deal with Moscow. But Russia insists that a peace pact and the territorial row are not directly linked. It rules out the signing of any peace accord in the foreseeable future.
Russia has nothing to gain – and much to lose – by presenting the Kuril Islands to Japan. The Kurils are of great strategic importance to Russia because they maintain the access of its Pacific Fleet to the Pacific Ocean and play a critical role in Russia’s nuclear deterrence strategy. The Pacific Fleet, with its headquarters in the port of Vladivostok, is one of Russia’s two most powerful naval forces.
By giving the Kurils to Japan, Moscow would facilitate the US navy’s entry into Pacific waters dangerously close to Russia – while restricting if not blocking its own sea routes to the Pacific. Either of these outcomes would harm Russia’s security.
At another level, over the last year, Russia’s decisions to build military facilities on the Iturup and Kunashir islands, which are part of the Kurils, have only confirmed its intention to keep them. Moscow is minded to think that if Russian guns appear on the islands, Japan may finally realize that the South Kurils are far from being Tokyo’s “northern territories.”
What Putin has said
It is hard to understand Japan’s hope that economic deals with Russia would persuade Moscow to cede the Kurils. The hope is unrealistic – and perhaps worse, shows that Japan is not taking Russia seriously. Especially since Abe and Putin met in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi on 6 May Moscow has made known several times that it has no intention to give the Kurils back to Japan.
For instance, even as Putin assured Japan that it is Russia’s partner in the Asia-Pacific and also in the world and is ready to buy anything from Japan he warned that Russia would not sell the Kurils to Japan. “We do not trade territories”
Nor is Putin in a hurry to sign a peace treaty with Japan. He has pointed out that mistrust between Moscow and Tokyo rules out an early peace deal and is against setting a time limit to sign one.
At another level, if Abe has been thinking that improved ties with Russia could help Japan to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing he is wrong. For any expansion of economic ties between Russia and Japan cannot match the strength of the Sino-Russian economic relationship. Sino-Russia bilateral trade touched $55.9 billion in first ten months of 2015, but bilateral trade between Russia and Japan in the first 10 months of 2015 stood at a mere $17.7 billion.
Over the last two years China and Russia have signed a big natural gas deal and held joint military exercises, primarily as a gesture of defiance against the West. Moreover – and more importantly – the economic ties between Moscow and Beijing are underpinned by their shared interest in countering America’s primacy in Asia. Moscow and Tokyo do not share any such interest.
Russia and China have made common cause on two outstanding Asian security issues. Both oppose the installation of a US missile defense system in South Korea to counter the North Korean nuclear threat And, echoing China’s view that the US is a destabilizing force in the South China Sea. Russia will not line up with any anti-Chinese coalition in Asia. All this only makes it harder to understand Abe’s mistaken calculation that stronger economic ties with Russia would help Japan to stabilize Asia against China’s bellicose nationalism.
Unable to break with the US by lifting sanctions against Russia for its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, or by dispensing with American help to check Chinese threats to its territory and maritime safety – Japan falls between two stools. Last year Abe failed to persuade his counterparts in the G7 to lift economic sanctions on Russia. At the same time Japan remains tied to an anti-Russian stance that it dislikes on Ukraine.
Even the new economic plans to develop the Kurils could face problems over the issue of sovereignty. Japan wants joint business on the Kurils conducted under a “special legal status.” Russia, on the other hand, wants it done under Russian law, as it says that the islands are Russian territory
This kind of ding-dong battle can continue forever. Russia will not display weakness on territorial issues, especially after showing off its territorial appetite in Ukraine, when it is under economic pressure from the west and has been treated as an international outcast by the G7.
Two outstanding questions remain. How long it will take Abe to absorb these lessons, and how will Japan’s relations with the Donald Trump administration affect its ties with Russia?