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Territorial dispute settlement to open up new perspectives for Japan and Russia

22:13 | 28.12.2018 | Analytic

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28 December 2018. PenzaNews. Peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo would bring the countries to the new level of cooperation, Japanese Ambassador to Russia Toyohisa Kozuki told RIA Novosti.

Territorial dispute settlement to open up new perspectives for Japan and Russia

Photo: Anatoly Gruzevich, VNIRO Russia, Wikipedia.org

“We are convinced that signing a peace treaty after solving the territorial problem would bring Japanese-Russian relations to a new, higher level. The Japanese government will continue efforts to get to that end goal,” the diplomat said.

According to him, Moscow and Tokyo have agreed to hold the visit of Prime Minister Abe to Russia in early 2019 with an opportunity to hold a meeting between foreign ministers before that as well as the Japanese-Russian top level meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit that will be held in Osaka in June.

Analyzing the potential outcomes of further negotiations on the disputed territories, James Brown, Associate Professor of Political Science, Temple University, Japan Campus, said that negotiations over the disputed islands appear to have entered a new phase.

“This is the result of Japan, under Prime Minister Abe, adopting a more conciliatory stance towards the territorial dispute. Specifically, Abe has agreed to conduct negotiations based on the 1956 Joint Declaration. This is important because the 1956 Joint Declaration only mentions the two smaller of the four disputed islands. This suggests that, unlike his predecessors, Abe is willing to accept […] such a deal. This willingness to accept compromise has helped to promote a more positive atmosphere in bilateral relations,” the expert told PenzaNews.

However, in his opinion, peace treaty seems doubtful in the nearest future.

“Although Abe has given considerable ground, the prospects for a final deal still appear doubtful. This is because the Russian side has made it clear that Japan would need to fulfill certain strict conditions to even achieve a two island deal,” James Brown explained.

“These conditions have not officially been made public, but they are expected to include a requirement that Japan accept Russia's right to the islands as a consequence of WWII. Furthermore, Russia looks set to demand that the two transferred islands be excluded from the US-Japan Security Treaty, thereby preventing US troops from being stationed on the transferred islands,” the analyst added.

Both the Japanese public and Japan's US ally are unlikely to approve of these conditions, he said.

“I do not expect the status quo to change. This is because the current arrangement suits Russia well. It is in control of all four of the disputed islands. Furthermore, the existence of the territorial dispute gives the Japanese leadership an incentive to engage with Russia politically and economically. This incentive would disappear if the dispute were actually to be settled,” James Brown noted.

In turn, Grant Newsham, Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, with experience as a US Diplomat and US Marine Officer, suggested that the question of the prospects for resolving this territorial dispute will remain relevant even in 20 years.

“It seems like the negotiations have entered a new phase a number of times over the years – but that always leads to another ‘new phase.’ I don’t see an agreement being reached that resolves the issues,” he said adding that peace treaty could have a favorable effect on the development of Russian Far East.

“I’ve been watching this issue since the Yeltsin era, and just don’t see the ‘disputed islands’ issue being resolved. There will always be tension in the Russia – Japan relationship given their history of territorial jostling and outright war over the last few centuries,” the analyst explained.

In his opinion, the problem is unlikely to be resolved by the islands returning to Japan.

“The Japanese and Russians will continue meeting and maybe sometime within the next decade they will reach a deal that gives Japan the privilege of paying Russia a lot of money in exchange for some Japanese companies setting up some limited operations in the disputed islands nearest to Japan. It’s hard to imagine actual territory being returned,” Grant Newsham said.

According to Jonathan Berkshire Miller, Senior Fellow at the Asian Forum Japan, the decision to return back to the 1956 Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration as a framework for a peace treaty, makes Russia closer to potentially parting with two of the four disputed isles: Shikotan and Habomai.

“Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin have definitely worked hard to move beyond historical tensions between Tokyo and Moscow. The two leaders have met over 20 times and Abe has been focused on finding a resolution to the territorial dispute before his third and final term concludes in 2021,” the analyst reminded.

“The reality however remains complicated as there are surely strings attached to any potential land reversion – most importantly caveats placed on the role and potential role of Japan’s ally – the US,” Jonathan Berkshire Miller added.

This puts Tokyo in a difficult position to accept a partial deal with large risks and consequences to its relations with Washington, he said.

“Japan should also be concerned that any deal on the Northern Territories that involves alliance concessions could set a destabilizing precedent for future US support over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by China but administered by Japan. As of now, the US has articulated its support for the Senkaku under Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty, as territory controlled by Japan,” the expert explained.

Meanwhile, Lak Chansok, Researcher at Cambodia Maritime Silk Road Research Center (CMSRRC), the Royal University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia and at Democracy Promotion Center, Research Center for Asia Pacific Studies (RCAPS), Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, reminded that during the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised an idea of renegotiating the long-waited peace treaty with Japan without any “precondition” by the end of this year. However, according to the analyst, despite positive political rhetoric of the two leaders, it remains too early to say that any deal on such significant issue will be successfully reached by the end of 2018 for several important reasons.

“First, both countries have different positions to deal with such issue,” he stressed.

According to him, geopolitically speaking, the Kuril Islands serve as a strategic buffer zone and remain significant for Russia’s defense capacity in the Pacific.

“Russia, in addition, is believed to enhance its strategic and political presence in the Asia-Pacific as Japan has recently developed its defense abilities including deployment of US-made F-35B fighter jets and especially aircraft carriers for the first time since WWII. Trump’s regional policy uncertainty and the growing US leverage to pressure Japan to strengthen its military capacities make Russia unlikely to make any potential deals for Japan at this critical juncture,” Lak Chansok said.

Kazuhiko Togo, Former Head of the Department of Europe and Asia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Professor of International Politics and Director of the Institute of World Affairs, Kyoto Sangyo University, stressed that the negotiations between the countries entered an important new phase, and the two leaderships are determined to move ahead to a new relationship based on trust and peace.

“The two countries respectively need to have yet unexplored trustworthy partner: for Japan it is Russia, and I believe, for Russia it is Japan. Something much more important than sheer number of islands is at stake. […] But naturally there are many obstacles to succeed in negotiations, such as understandable negative feelings in Russia to change any status–quo on territory, and strong patriotic feeling in Japan of resisting any outcome which does not realize in full their declared objective. There is an absolute need to understand the pain of the other side, and find out a mutually acceptable compromise-solution. I do not know whether the negotiators have reached that point of ‘mutually acceptable solution.’ If they have not reached that point yet, I sincerely hope they would find it in a not too distant future,” the analyst said.

At the same time, according to him, it is very difficult to predict the development of the situation.

“In Japan, it is very clear that Prime Minister Abe is determined to realize a qualitatively new relationship. I cannot imagine a stronger candidate in the foreseeable future so firmly determined in this course. In this sense Russia has now a great window of opportunity. If we fail to grasp this window of opportunity, for the foreseeable future, it would be closed for both countries. I do hope that a full agreement would be made within the Abe-Putin period,” the former Japanese diplomat concluded.

For many years, Russia and Japan have been negotiating a peace treaty, which, after the end of World War II, was never signed.

Tokyo claims the Kuril Islands Kunashir, Shikotan, Iturup and Habomai, referring to the bilateral Russo-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Amity of 1855.

In 1956, the USSR and Japan signed a joint declaration, according to which Moscow agreed to consider the possibility of transferring Habomai and Shikotan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. The fate of Kunashir and Iturup was not discussed. The USSR hoped that the declaration would put an end to the dispute, but Japan considered the document to be only part of the solution to the problem, without giving up claims on all the islands. Subsequent negotiations led nowhere.

Moscow’s position is that following the Second World War, the Southern Kuriles became part of the USSR; then Russia became its successor, and Russian sovereignty over the islands, which has the appropriate international legal framework, is beyond doubt.

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