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Cooperation is key to ending Northern Territories impasse

by Mark J. Valencia

Russia and Japan appear to be creeping toward an interim solution to the Northern Territories imbroglio. There are two possibilities being discussed — joint administration and control of some or all four islands, and a two-stage agreement in which Russia gives up or shares Shikotan and the Habomai group and promises to return or share Kunashiri and Etorofu later. In either arrangement, both countries would win and no one would lose. Russia’s territorial integrity would be partially preserved, Japan’s legitimacy and presence in the islands would be restored and the islands’ abundant terrestrial and marine resources would be jointly developed to the economic benefit of both.

All the Kuril Islands, including the southernmost four — Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai group — were taken by the Soviet Union from Japan at the end of World War II. According to Article 2 of the San Francisco Treaty of Sept. 8, 1951, Japan renounced all rights, title and claim to the Kuril Islands and to that part of Sakhalin and the adjacent islands gained in 1905. But Japan argues that the reference to the Kuril Islands in the San Francisco Treaty was to the islands Japan had acquired in exchange for Sakhalin in 1875, and that all four islands belong to Japan. These islands are each entitled to an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles. The maritime zones attached to these islands comprise some 147,630 nautical square km of waters and seabed.

During Russian President Vladimar Putin’s visit to Tokyo in early September, he and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori signed a joint economic-cooperation program for the islands. The program is a framework under which specific joint projects will be developed. Already suggested are aquaculture of mollusks and sea urchins, and processing of seafood. And there is already an intergovernmental accord on joint fishing in the area and for Japanese technical assistance and projects in fisheries development.

Further projects were agreed in late October in Moscow when Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov chaired the joint commission on the peace treaty. A meeting is also planned between Putin and Mori in Brunei at the APEC summit on Nov. 15-16.

Important fish stocks and petroleum and mineral potential associated with the islands present many other opportunities for cooperation. Although the island chain has no petroleum potential, there may be some in the South Okhotsk Basin that underlies the Kuril Abyssal Plain and the continental shelf and continental slope offshore southeast Sakhalin. Its size and sediment thickness (the thickest in the entire Sea of Okhotsk) qualify it as the most likely petroleum producer in the area.

No economic ores have been found on or around the Habomais and Shikotan. However, the area seaward of these islands is a likely locus of manganese nodules and crusts and barite nodules, particularly on seamounts and the outer trench slope. In contrast, Kunashiri and Etorofu are rich in minerals. Tin has been found on southern Etorofu associated with zinc, lead, copper and nickel. Deposits of native sulfur have been found on southern and northern Kunashiri in the calderas of Golovnin and Mendeleyev volcanoes, respectively; in the basin of the Maloye stream at the northwestern end of Kunashiri; and in the Novoye deposit on Etorofu. Perhaps up to 200,000 tons of sulfur per year could be mined out of the Novoye deposit alone, with all of the deposits of the region together producing enough sulfuric acid to satisfy the entire needs of Russia. Kunashiri and Etorofu also contain most of the economically promising deposits of metallic sulfides in the entire Kuril archipelago.

Large placer deposits of titanium and magnetite occur in the sandy shoals bordering Kunashiri and Etorofu; four occur on Etorofu alone. These sands are also sources of nickel, copper, chromium, vanadium and niobium. Vanadium, nobium and titanium oxide are important in the production of both normal steel and hard, lightweight steel used for military and scientific purposes. Thus these deposits are likely to be the first to be exploited on a large scale. A single, large metallurgical plant could process all of the titanium-magnetite deposits of the Kurils as well as those of the Tatar Strait and offshore Kamchatka. The increasing scarcity of such rare and strategic minerals may help stimulate a joint effort to open this region to development. In particular, Japan could provide the infrastructure, technology and capital to jump-start this area into the world minerals market.

The marine fishery resources of the waters around the Kuril Islands are among the most productive and intensively utilized in the world. The Pacific coast of the Kuril Islands is the most productive. The Russian fishing industry could certainly benefit from Japanese investment and technology.

Fisheries management is a pressing need. High demand, together with increasingly efficient technology, has led to near-capacity utilization of the region’s fishery resources over the last 20 years. Though the total catch for this region is still gradually increasing, the catches of many of the more valuable commercial species have been declining, both in quantity and individual fish size. Thus overall, the seas around the Kurils are nearly fully exploited. Pacific herring, Pacific saury, Japanese anchovy and Japanese flying squid are already being fished at or above their maximum sustainable yield. Pink salmon catches have also increased in recent years, due apparently to a vigorous restocking program and a restoration of spawning grounds by Russia. Also important for Russia is the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars annually in taxes due to the smuggling of fish to Japan.

Another incentive for cooperation is the protection of spawning grounds. Those for Pacific cod and Alaska pollack are found along the east coast of Etorofu, for Pacific herring along the southern tip of Kunashiri, for the Japanese sardine in the Habomais, and for the Japanese flying squid around Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomais.

In an arrangement that sees the transfer of Shikotan and the Habomai group and joint development of the other two islands, Japan would gain significant fishing grounds since the majority of fishery resources are located on the Pacific side of the islands. Japan would also obtain access to several economic mineral deposits on Kunashiri and Etorofu including the larger sulfur, sulfide and titanium deposits.

In Northeast Asia’s growing positive political atmosphere, the islands’ resource potential and the need for proper management of the living resources may be sufficient incentives to reach an interim solution that satisfies the political and economic needs of both parties. But it is up to the respective leaders to demonstrate the political will necessary for a breakthrough.