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Flexibility key to resolving Japan’s territorial disputes

by Gregory Clark

At last count, Japan was in severe dispute with every one of its neighbors — Russia, South Korea, North Korea, China and Taiwan. Blame Tokyo’s mishandling of issues if you wish. But blame also the legacy of the region’s immediate postwar history. The dispute with Russia is a good example.

In February 1945, to persuade Moscow to join the still unfinished war against Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States at Yalta promised Moscow it could take Japan’s Kuril Islands as a reward. Moscow gladly seized that reward. And in the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty negotiations the U.S. seemed to confirm that Yalta promise by forcing Japan to renounce all rights, claim and title to the Kurils.

In 1954, Tokyo began to insist that Moscow should at least return Shikotan and the Habomais, islands separate from the Kurils and close to Hokkaido that Soviet troops had also seized at war end. Moscow said yes, but when Tokyo then demanded the return of the two southernmost Kurils islands — Etorofu and Kunashiri also close to Japan — Moscow said no.

In 1956 when Tokyo seemed willing to drop the Etorofu-Kunashiri claim in exchange for a peace treaty and the return of Shikotan and the Habomais, the U.S., which in 1951 had forced Japan to renounce all the Kurils, about-faced and insisted that Tokyo had to maintain its claim to Etorofu and Kunashiri. The resulting stalemate has continued ever since with Tokyo now insisting, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the Kurils to which it signed away its rights in 1951 did not include Etorofu and Kunashiri.

What to do? The first move is to understand that for Moscow to return territory gained in 1945 would create a precedent dangerous for territory it gained in the West. It would need some convincing reason before making such a concession. Tokyo can provide that reason. It should declassify the documentary evidence proving that in 1951 Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida only signed the Kurils away under protest. That protest focused especially on Etorofu and Kunashiri, Japan’s traditional territory. On this basis it would create a more convincing legal basis for a Moscow concession. But that would mean Japan would have to begin to criticize its good friend, the U.S., and cease to blame Moscow for the loss of its territory: a Catch-22.

The dispute with South Korea over the Takeshima islands is even more intractable. Japan has its historical claim, as does South Korea. But Japan’s claim is clouded by its 1910-45 colonial domination of Korea. In 1952, South Korea set out to claim ownership, threatening force if necessary. Japan, unable to respond with force, has relied mainly on calls, ignored by Seoul, for an International Court of Justice ruling.

In the 1951 preparations for the San Francisco peace treaty, the right to ownership was closely debated by the Allies, with the U.S., mainly for Cold War reasons, finally taking a pro-Japan position. But it was unwilling to go further.

Turning to the Senkaku Islands dispute, both Taiwan and Beijing make claims based on history and geography. Japan too has its historical claims but they too are clouded by actions taken before and after its expansionist 1894-95 war against China. In its 1972 and 1978 normalization and peace treaty talks with Beijing, both sides were said to have been willing to shelve the ownership issue for the future. Today Tokyo says it made no such promise. Japan seeming to gain territory by reneging on the gentleman’s agreement has long been a hot issue for the Chinese — all Chinese.

Tokyo makes much of Beijing and Taiwan only beginning to make formal Senkakus claims after oil possibilities were discovered in the late sixties. But the former Nationalist government of China had claims going back to the 1940s. And after 1945 the Senkakus, together with the Okinawa islands, were first under U.S. military control and then U.S. trusteeship until 1972, with Japan having no more than what was called “residual sovereignty.” Formal claims by others had to wait till the end of that trusteeship. And when that end approached, the U.S., reportedly as a result of pressure from Taiwan, promised only to grant Japan administrative control of the Senkakus, with sovereignty left undecided. It maintains that position today.

What to do?

Tokyo’s willingness not to station personnel on the disputed islands suggests it realizes the sovereignty issue exists. It also provides the basis for a solution. If it were to tell Beijing that it is willing to continue the nonstationing of personnel, the situation could be made to seem to return to the “shelving” solution of the 1970s. The gunboats could be safely withdrawn.

The abduction issue with North Korea could also be solved easily by a return to the past, this time to the dramatic 2002 breakthrough in relations when Pyongyang promised to return five abductees in exchange for a Tokyo promise to normalize relations. But rightwing pressures then led Tokyo to go back on that promise, claiming more abductees still remained in North Korea. Whether they exist or not has been disputed and, given the refusal to normalize relations, cannot be confirmed.

This, plus the imposition of so-far ineffective sanctions, has led to the current stalemate. Japan’s anger over the abduction of its citizens is understandable. But it also has some responsibility for the current stalemate.

Conclusion? To a large extent Japan is the victim of past events over which it lacked control. Even the abduction issue has roots in the artificial 1945 division of Korea. With a little more negotiating flexibility it probably could solve most of the disputes. But first it has to be persuaded to restrain its nationalists.

Gregory Clark, a former China and Russian specialist in the Australian diplomatic service, is a commentator on Japanese affairs. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net