It's Time to Solve the Kuril Islands Dispute

July 5, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: RussiaJapanChinaKuril IslandsWorld War II

It's Time to Solve the Kuril Islands Dispute

The territorial dispute over the islands, referred to as the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, has been a toxic influence on Russian-Japanese bilateral relations ever since the end of World War II. What is really holding back progress?

ON SEPTEMBER 5, 2019, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe met for the twenty-seventh time at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. The long-standing dispute over the Kuril Islands between Russia and Japan continued to be an issue, but the dialogue revealed a few interesting trends. Abe emphasized the “strategic importance” of strengthening political and economic relations with Russia as well as that of joint projects on the disputed isles, which could eventually help facilitate the conclusion of a peace treaty. Putin, for his part, also stressed the significance of bilateral documents signed during his visit to Japan. He asserted that expanding strategic communication, bilateral trade, and investment cooperation would bring Russian-Japanese relations to a new level. In this atmosphere, it would be possible to “find a compromise on the most difficult matters.” It appears that both parties hope that building a firm partnership could help solve the problem.

The territorial dispute over the islands, referred to as the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, arose when the isles were occupied by Soviet forces following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. The resulting disagreement over the islands’ sovereignty and the lack of a peace treaty have been a toxic influence on Russian-Japanese bilateral relations ever since. However, negotiations to resolve the dispute never move past the talking stage. What is really holding back progress?

THE POPULATIONS of both countries have lost faith in the matter ever reaching a productive resolution. According to recent polls, nearly three-quarters of Japanese do not believe any progress is achievable in negotiations, yet they should be continued in order to either “return” the territories to Japan (32.9 percent of respondents) or “compromise” on the transfer of the islands of Kunashir and Iturup immediately with talks over the other two islands in the future (43.5 percent). At the same time, the overwhelming majority of Russians (77 percent) are against even considering the transfer of the territories to Japan. The actual population of the Kuril Islands is itself almost wholly united against the notion (96 percent).

Experts argue that putting an end to disagreements with Russia over the islands would enable Abe’s government to pursue a more independent foreign policy line. This has been one of his key goals, especially in light of a proposed referendum on Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which could have resulted in a reconsidering of roles and missions for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. However, Abe’s withdrawal from the next election may drastically alter this calculus. Putting aside the possibility that the United States may attempt to intervene in signing a peace treaty between Russia and Japan, as it did in 1956, a strong relationship with one of the region’s largest actors would certainly help balance out nearby China’s growing and worrisome influence. This is something that Tokyo has been particularly concerned about in recent years, especially after China overtook Japan and became the second-largest economy in the world, ending the latter’s four-decade-long reign in the number two spot. Russia, for its part, could also use another solid partner in Asia to counter accusations that its recent “turn to the East” is in essence a turn to Beijing. The reality is that both could greatly benefit from this partnership. However, would ending this territorial tug of war necessarily lead to a breakthrough in bilateral relations?

The current dynamics between Russia and Japan present a chicken-and-egg dilemma: is it the territorial dispute that holds back the two from strengthening and diversifying their cooperation beyond exploiting natural resources and trading automobiles, or is it the ties themselves that need a major boost and a series of mutual concessions before there can be any progress in the dispute resolution? 

In this respect, it may be meaningful to draw on a case of another long-standing border issue in the region: the Sino-Soviet and later Sino-Russian dispute. That was successfully settled in two stages formally set forth in three major agreements of ratification: in 1991 for the eastern part of the border from the Pacific shore to Mongolia; in 1994 for the west from Mongolia to Kazakhstan, which was never a disputed territory so no complex negotiations were involved; and in 2004 for the three remaining isles of Bolshoy (Abagaitu) on the Argun River, and Tarabarov (Yinlong) and Bolshoy Ussuriisky (Heixiazi) on the Amur (Heilongjian) River near Khabarovsk.

IT MAY be argued that the two territorial disputes are, from the perspective of international law and otherwise, rather different. First, the Russian-Chinese dispute emerged as a part of a long history of bilateral relations, while the Russo-Japanese one is a result of the Second World War, during which China was an ally of the USSR and Japan was its enemy. Second, Japan is a close ally of the United States, and it does not intend to compromise these relations significantly in the near future. China has never been in such a position. Third, the Kurils have a significant Russian population. Finally, since Russia clearly states that the islands are a part of its territory, in case of a compromise settlement it would be hard to claim that it is merely a border delimitation, as was the case with China. Instead, it may look like a transfer of the territories to Japan. On the positive side, although there was a war between the USSR and Japan, there have never been border clashes afterwards, like between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China in 1969.

In more global terms, Sino-Russian border disagreements were, from the very beginning, about clarifying the border demarcation arrangements made in the mid-nineteenth century. The borders between the two were established by the Treaty of Peking concluded in 1860, in which China recognized the Russian Empire as master of lands on the left bank of Amur River and of those between the Ussuri River and the Pacific Ocean. However, as was often the case in the nineteenth century, the river was considered no man’s land, and, by extension, the islands located in it. In other words, the status of the islands remained undetermined. The three largest islands, just like most other smaller river islands, were unilaterally incorporated into Soviet territory at the end of 1920s, and given the Russian names of Bolshoy, Tarabarov, and Bolshoy Ussuriisky. After coming to power in 1949, the Communist government of China did not dispute the border, since the Soviet Union was a major partner and friend. But when tensions between Moscow and Beijing started to take their toll, Beijing insisted on border talks.

By 1964, the USSR agreed to divide the borders in accordance with the international law based on the thalweg principle—namely to identify them as going through the center of the main channel of any river. That meant that islands between the main channel and the Chinese bank should go to China. Yet the implementation of this decision became impossible when, in July of 1964, Mao Zedong claimed in a meeting with a delegation from the Japanese Socialist Party that “About a hundred years ago, the area to the east of [Lake] Baikal became Russian territory, and since then Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Kamchatka, and other areas have been Soviet territory. We have not yet presented our account for this list.” This triggered a harsh reaction from Nikita Khrushchev, who ordered the withdrawal of the Soviet delegation from the talks. The two leaders parted ways in pursuit of their respective geopolitical ambitions. 1964, nonetheless, was start of negotiations that would last for over forty years.

Uncertainty was followed by open confrontation at the border in 1969, but the following decades demonstrated little progress. The situation finally shifted when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power with his policy of new thinking, which was aimed at reducing the military presence of the Soviet Union in the world. The three major obstacles Beijing saw in the way of normalizing relations with Moscow—Soviet troops in Mongolia, their extensive presence on the Sino-Soviet border, and support of Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia—conveniently coincided with Gorbachev’s priorities. Removing these obstacles, along with the fact that China was then ostracized from the West following the suppression of the Tiananmen Square Protests, secured a smooth transition to a rapprochement between the two states.

The first of the three agreements on border demarcation was signed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union and ratified afterwards in 1992. The situation was complicated by the fact that other former Soviet republics shared the border with China, but the negotiations proceeded between the joint delegations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan on the one side, and the Chinese delegation on the other. The islands of Bolshoy, Tarabarov, and Bolshoy Ussuriisky were deliberately left out from these talks, as well as the following phase of the painless negotiations in 1994 regarding the border from Mongolia to Kazakhstan, pushing them to the last phase. It still took ten to fourteen years from that point to finalize the demarcation. The disputed territory was divided approximately fifty-fifty, although a slightly larger territory went to Russia, with entire island of Tarabarov and parts of Bolshoy and Bolshoy Ussuriisky going to China. This successful resolution removed a potential point of contention and secured a decades-long, strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow, which eventually facilitated the latter’s still-unfolding turn to the East.