Monday, 28 February 2011

Border Focus: Kuril Islands

Dmitry Medvedev in the Kuril Islands in November 2010

What is disputed?

The Kuril Islands are a volcanic archipelago that stretch approximately 1,300km from Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, to Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean.

All of the islands are currently under Russian jurisdiction. Different Japanese people and political parties claim different parts of the island chain, although all are agreed that, at the very least, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islands, just offshore Hokkaido, should be returned. Others include Kunashiri and Etorofu islands, which together with Shikotan and Habomai make up what Japan calls the Northern Territories.

What is the history of the dispute?

The original inhabitants of the islands are the Ainu people who have connections to both Hokkaido and northern China. The first 'discovery' of the Kurils by foreign powers is unknown, although China, Russia, Japan and even the Netherlands jockeyed for the right. Towards the end of the 17th century and into the 18th century both Russia and Japan took an interest in the islands, although it was originally the Russians that pursued the islands more vigorously – first on an exploratory basis, and then in the 1730s with an eye to settlement.

Growing British and American presence in the Far East prompted Russia and Japan to sign the Treaty of Shimoda in 1855, which fixed the boundary between Etorofu and Uruppa islands. Sakhalin was declared a joint possession of Russia and Japan, with people from China also allowed to live there, and the two regions of the Kurils developed separately until 1875.

The 1875 Treaty of St Petersburg followed more than a decade of negotiations, and intimidation, from both sides. Russia emerged victorious in the contest of wills over Sakhalin, gaining full sovereignty over the island but, in exchange, Japan received full title to the Kurils.

Following Russia's disastrous loss in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese war, Moscow was forced to cede the southern part of Sakhalin back to the Japanese in the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905. Japan also got fishing rights in Russian waters which continued until 1945.

The modern history of the dispute is a result of strategic negotiations towards the end of World War Two. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Soviet Union promised to enter the war against Japan soon after the defeat of Germany, and was promised possession of the Kurils in exchange.

Between 18th August and 5th September 1945, Soviet troops took control of the Kuril Islands, and two years later they evicted the native population. They have held control of the islands ever since.

The problem of the Kurils arose between the US and the Soviet Union during the preparation of the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. It was supposed to be a permanent peace treaty between Japan and the Allied Powers from the Second World War, but by this time the Cold War had already taken hold, and the US position vis-à-vis the Yalta and Potsdam agreements had changed considerably. They were less keen now to sanction Soviet territorial expansion. The outcome was that the treaty stated that Japan would renounce all rights to Southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, but without recognising the Soviet Union's sovereignty over the Kurils. In addition, what constituted the Kurils was never defined, leaving Japan able to claim that at least some of the disputed islands were not up for grabs.

Further peace talks were held between Japan and the Soviet Union in 1956 because Moscow had refused to sign the San Francisco treaty. That year the Soviets proposed to settle the dispute by returning Shikotan and Habomai to Japan, and while Japan was inclined to accept, they were prevented from doing so by American intervention.

What is the situation now?

There have been few substantial developments since 1956. In general, Japan rejects the Yalta and Potsdam Conference agreements as binding given that Tokyo was not represented at either of them. They argue that the 1951 San Francisco Treaty does not cover the islands that make up the Northern Territories (Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai), and that they are therefore still Japanese. The Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation as its successor state have administered all of the islands, and with some exceptions, have been reluctant to discuss the issue.

Hopes were raised when Mikhail Gorbachev expressed his eagerness to sort out the situation, and even when that failed, it was thought that mooted Japanese aid to Boris Yeltsin's struggling Russia might provide a turning point, but this failed to materialise. In essence, any compromise by a Russian leader would be political suicide domestically and without many rewards internationally.

The issue has been raised many times in the past few years.
Relations deteriorated in 2008 when the Japanese government published new school textbook guidelines instructing teachers to teach that Japan has sovereignty over the islands. Russia immediately responded by affirming its sovereignty over the islands.

Tensions were further increased when the Russian head of the Kuril Region called for the termination of visa-free trips that had taken place to allow Japanese citizens visit their relatives' graves in the Kurils. There have also been crackdowns on Japanese fisherman fishing in Russia's waters which was something that had, until recently, been allowed.

In November 2010, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit the islands. On 10th February 2011, he called for increased military deployments on the islands. Medvedev said that the islands were an 'inseparable' part of the country and a strategic Russian region. On 15th February, plans for deployment of advanced anti-air missile systems on the islands were announced.

All of these actions have sparked outrage in Japan, and on 7th February, which is Japan's 'National Territories Day', large rallies were held calling for the islands' return. Prime Minister Naoto Kan spoke at a rally in Tokyo, saying that Japan will not back down from its claim and said visits by Russian leaders are 'an unforgivable outrage'.

What are the prospects for resolution?

A resolution to the dispute currently looks unlikely. Russia has nothing to gain and much to lose from compromising its position. The Kuril Islands are thought to contain large quantities of natural gas, as well as gold, silver, titanium and rhenium, all of which are yet to be exploited.

The issue of offshore resources, primarily natural gas, is also important. If Japan regained control of the Northern Territories, they would be able to extend their territorial sea and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) claims into the Sea of Okhotsk and the North Pacific. This also has implications for fishing rights.

Taking advantage of the resources around the Kuril Islands will prove tricky until their ownership is fully determined, but this is an issue that has to be determined by political negotiation, rather than legal judgements, and it appears, for the time being that the political will is lacking.

For the full Border Focus, please see the Menas Borders website, here.

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