Russia-held isles past point of return

Moscow woos other outsiders, ups defenses

by Masami Ito

Japan has failed for more than half a century to secure the return of four islands seized by Soviet forces off Hokkaido near the end of World War II, and Moscow’s recent moves to bolster its hold on the territories dims the likelihood of any concessions from Russia.

Moscow is now threatening to push Japan out of the picture by reaching out to China and South Korea to join in on economic development of the South Kurils, which, according to Russia includes the four disputed islands Tokyo officially calls the Northern Territories.

Just last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated he welcomes foreign investment from countries like China, South Korea and Japan to develop the islands during a news conference after a meeting with his Tokyo counterpart, Seji Maehara, in Moscow.

Nobuo Shimotomai, a professor of international relations at Hosei University, said it was obviously an intimidation tactic targeting Japan.

“It is transparently obvious that Russia is trying to contain Japan, sending out a signal that if Tokyo doesn’t respond,” Russia will turn to China and South Korea, Shimotomai said. “But at the same time, Russia has been increasing its level of diplomacy in Asia, and there is an aspect that it is trying to get China and Japan, as well as South Korea, to compete to see which country would prove to be the biggest merit to Russia.”

Russia has been urging Japan to participate in jointly developing the islands, but Tokyo has been reluctant because such action would be in accordance with Moscow’s rules and laws — and such abidance would be tantamount to accepting Russian sovereignty.

A Foreign Ministry official said the government also cannot countenance the participation of other nations in the islands’ development.

“Be it a third country, the Japanese government considers any activity on the Northern Territories based on the assumption that Russia has control over them to be inconsistent with Japan’s position,” the official said, adding that this position has been conveyed to other nations being approached.

During the bilateral meeting last week, Maehara and Lavrov agreed to hold high-level discussions on the possibility of joint economic activities on the islands that would not affect “Japan’s legal position.”

While little progress could be seen from the meeting amid strained bilateral ties over the islands, Shimotomai said the agreement could be viewed as a positive step.

Maehara’s visit to Russia last week to seek a breakthrough in the deadlocked situation over the islands instead highlighted the strained bilateral relations, critics said.

“I (didn’t) see the necessity of Maehara visiting Russia at this time,” said Shigeki Hakamada, a professor of Russian studies at Aoyama Gakuin University. “It would be different if Russia was not only focused on developing economic cooperation but also on concluding a peace treaty. Its actions in the past few months, however, say otherwise.”

The Soviet Union seized the islands of Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu and the Habomai islets at the end of World War II and later evicted all of the 17,000 Japanese residents.

The dispute has prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing an official World War II peace treaty.

Last November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Kremlin leader to visit Kunashiri. Since then, various key Russian ministers and government officials have made trips, angering Japan.

At a Feb. 7 Tokyo-sponsored rally to commemorate Northern Territories Day, Prime Minister Naoto Kan called Medvedev’s visit an “unforgivable outrage.” That in turn, triggered harsh criticism from Russia.

During last week’s news conference, Maehara admitted bilateral talks “ran parallel,” while Lavrov pointedly criticized Kan’s comment on Medvedev’s Kunashiri trip. The Russian foreign minister added that there will be no prospect for negotiations if Japan intends to take “a radical approach.”

The islands are important for Russia not only because of their rich resources, but also because of their strategic value, said Aoyama Gakuin’s Hakamada.

According to the professor, the Russian military has been keen on restoring its military presence on the islands, which provide a pathway through the Sea of Okhotsk to the Pacific, as in the Soviet days.

Hakamada pointed out that Russia was mainly eyeing the U.S. for strategic reasons while trying to contain Japan politically.

“Various countries have been strengthening, not weakening, their militaristic presence in the region,” Hakamada said. “Russia is politically appealing its presence on the islands toward Japan, while militaristically, it is focusing more on the U.S.”

According to media reports, Medvedev gave orders to strengthen Russia’s military presence on the islands. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who visited the islands earlier this month, said the Russian military’s armaments there would be upgraded.

“The Northern Territories are the inherent territory of Japan from the viewpoint of international law and Russia does not have any internationally legal grounds,” Maehara told reporters last week in Tokyo.

“Therefore, regardless of which leading figures or people visit the islands or whether Russia may strengthen or weaken its military presence, it does not change . . . the evaluation of international law that they are the inherent territory of Japan,” he said.