Will Abe-Putin talks lead to a resolution of islands dispute?

By Zhou Yongsheng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/31 11:00:58 Last Updated: 2019/1/1 16:54:34

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to visit Moscow on January 21, 2019 to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has stirred fresh discussion on the long-lasting territorial dispute between the two nations.

The dispute over islands in the Kuril archipelago has strained Japan-Russia ties since World War II. Both Moscow and Tokyo claim sovereignty over the islands, known in Russia as Kurile Islands and in Japan as the Northern Territories, including Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai Islands.

On September 12, Putin turned to Abe at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, and offered to sign a peace treaty without any conditions by the end of 2018 to formally end WWII hostilities. 

Russia maintains that the Kurile Islands signal the Soviet Union's triumph during WWII and denies Japan's territorial sovereignty on them. Japan, however, has been firmly demanding the Northern Territories back, claiming sovereignty on them. 

At a summit in Singapore on November 14, Putin and Abe agreed to accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty based on the Soviet-Japanese joint declaration of 1956. The declaration commits Russia to transferring Shikotan and Habomai Islands once a peace treaty is concluded. This consensus has led to a dramatic transformation of Japan-Russia territorial disputes. 

Japanese public opinion believed that Russia will drag its feet over the promise to return two islands to Japan. Meanwhile, Japanese opposition parties demanded that their country never compromise and Abe continue the victorious pursuit by asking Russia to return all the four islands.

However, Putin later said that the 1956 declaration did not specify "on what grounds and whose sovereignty they will fall under", suggesting that Moscow may hand over the two islands to Japan without transfer of sovereignty. This would be an unprecedented interpretation of territory transfer in the world. According to Putin's theory, would Japan only have the right to use the islands? If so, what would be the duration of use? Would Russia charge Japan any fee? No further details of the resulting legal issues were given by Moscow.

Putin admitted that talks with Japan about transferring Shikotan and Habomai islet groups were held but denied talks over sovereign entitlement. He said that the sovereignty of the two islands is subject to future negotiations. Putin's remarks indicate that it would not be easy for Japan to get back the islands as mentioned in the declaration. However, Japan has a different understanding of the issue.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin's Press Secretary said on  November 18 that return to the 1956 declaration in no way implies an automatic transfer of Russian territory to Japan. He said, "Can we say it means automatic transfer of any territories? Absolutely no."

Putin and Peskov have in fact denied the possibility of a sovereign handover and "automatic transfer" on the basis of the 1956 declaration. Japan however demands "automatic transfer". There is clearly a huge gap between the stances taken by the two sides. 

In early December, Putin said during a meeting with Abe after the G20 summit in Argentina that Moscow will hand over to Japan Shikotan and Habomai Islands after a peace treaty. Nonetheless, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that accepting the legality of Russia's control over the four disputed islands would be an indispensable first step for Japan to take. 

Putin's and Lavrov's positions are somewhat contradictory. If Japan recognizes Russia's control, it is clearly impossible to claim any of the four islands back. There are no indications that divergences exist within Putin's government on Kuril Islands, but various related and mutually restrained statements have been heard. This is probably part of Moscow's strategy. 

These inconsistent statements can be misleading and render Japan's wish of taking back the four islands unsuccessful. On the one hand, Russia attempts to show respect to the historical declaration and hand over Shikotan and Habomai to Japan. On the other hand, it keeps holding on to their territorial sovereignty, and seeking a good time and method of transfer. In other words, Moscow wants to have an agreement only if conditions are favorable to Russia.

In addition, Russia would definitely not allow the Japanese to wish for Iturup and Kunashir, the two larger islands in the north Kuril chain, that is, Tokyo must acknowledge the sovereignty of Moscow. However, Japan may not request the short-term handover of the two larger islands, but would hardly give up its right to claim in the long run. 

Moreover, Russia repeatedly doubts Japan's independence and wants to make sure American troops will not be deployed on the islands after Russia returns them. Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan permits the US to act for the sake of maintaining peace in East Asia and even exercise power on Japanese national disputes. Once Japan is entitled to using the islands after Russia's handover, the US will have rights of military deployment there. 

The territorial dispute is the focus of Russia-Japan conflicts, as well as an intricate issue awaiting resolution.

The author is deputy director of the Japanese Studies Center at China Foreign Affairs University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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