Even though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed their recent agreement on joint economic activities on four disputed islands off Hokkaido is a step toward resolving the territorial row, the islands’ strategic importance for Russia is likely to continue complicating the decades-old issue.
Even if the agreed economic cooperation chiefly in the Russian Far East makes headway, the strategic importance of the Russian-held islands, claimed by Japan, bodes ill for Tokyo in its efforts to regain them, especially given the advance of China in the Arctic region and Russia’s need to maintain its nuclear deterrence, according to some analysts.
Japan claims that Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group are an integral part of its territory and were illegally seized by the Soviet Union after Japan’s surrender in World War II in August 1945. Russia maintains the Soviet Union took the islands legitimately as the spoils of war.
Russia has been modernizing its military on the islands, which delineate the southern edge of the Sea of Okhotsk where Russian nuclear submarines are deployed.
“When the military characteristics of the Northern Territories (disputed islands) are considered, (their importance) is not about the defense of the islands themselves but more about protecting and controlling access to the Sea of Okhotsk that lies inside of the islands,” said Yu Koizumi, a research fellow at the Institute for Future Engineering.
“In that respect, Russia cannot easily concede as the importance of the Northern Territories is closely related to its nuclear deterrence,” he said.
The island chain also lies along the sea lane connecting the Arctic Sea and the Pacific Ocean, an important route for China’s commercial vessels and warships.
Russia has friendly ties with China, but is wary of the influence of the world’s second-largest economy over the region, including the Arctic zone and the Russian Far East, a depopulated and underdeveloped region that shares a long border with China, according to analysts.
Russia has deployed state-of-the-art anti-ship missile systems on two of the disputed islands, and is reportedly set to build a naval base in Matua Island near the center of the Kuril Island chain.
As Putin mentioned during his summit with Abe on Dec. 15, Russia wants to resume the “two-plus-two” dialogue between the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers, which has not been held since the first meeting in November 2013 following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.
Stronger security cooperation with Japan under the two-plus-two framework would allow Russia to avoid depending heavily on ties with China. Closer defense ties with Russia would benefit Japan, which also has tensions with China over a group of Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed islets in the East China Sea.
While Tokyo is apparently hesitant about full-fledged resumption of such talks while the Group of Seven and European countries are imposing sanctions on Russia over the Crimea issue, there may be a silver lining for Japan if Russia wants to keep Japan on its side.
“Russia’s relations with China are currently very strong but, at the same time, it is pursuing closer ties with Japan, a big power in the Asia-Pacific region, as a part of its balancing act,” said Nobuo Shimotomai, a professor of Russian politics at Hosei University.
In its diplomacy toward China, Russia “is keen on improving ties with Japan and other countries neighboring China, such as South Korea and Vietnam,” Shimotomai said.
This is the second of a three-part series on Japan-Russia relations.