Commentary / Japan

A ‘new approach’ for the Russian territorial dispute?

by Gregory Clark

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says that in his May 6 talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it was agreed that a “new approach” was needed for solving the territorial dispute that has blocked a peace treaty between the two countries for just on 60 years. One wonders what that “new approach” could possibly be, and whether it would be accepted by hardliners in Japan’s Foreign Ministry. The last time a new approach was tried, back in 2000-2001, the three Japanese negotiators were roundly condemned as traitors by the Japanese right wing. Two of these negotiators ended up in jail or detention.

The compromise the negotiators had sought is often described as “two islands plus alpha.” The “two islands” to be returned to Japan out of the four that were occupied by Soviet troops in the final stages of World War II were the smaller islands of Shikotan and the Habomai group. The Russian side describes them as the lesser Kurils, but historically they were always part of Hokkaido. The “plus alpha” was to be some concession — joint development perhaps leading to joint ownership — over the two much larger islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri.

For the Foreign Ministry hawks in Tokyo, any concession that did not recognize ultimate and complete Japanese sovereignty over the two larger islands was unacceptable. But for the Russian side any concession that impinged on Russian sovereignty over those islands now or in the future was unacceptable. The Japanese negotiators were guilty of trying to find some common ground between the two unacceptables.

The attempt to negotiate a solution had been initiated by the much underrated Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who held the office from 2000 to 2001. He had also given the go sign for secret negotiations with North Korea to return Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang agents in the 1970s and ’80s, which had resulted in the spectacular 2002 release of five abductees, plus a North Korean apology. But the talks over the Russian-held islands (called the Northern Territories in Japan) did not even get to first base. When Mori was replaced by Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister in April 2001 the Foreign Ministry hawks quickly moved in. One negotiator — former Foreign Ministry official and now noted commentator Masaru Sato — ended up suffering 512 days in detention to force him to confess to some minor ministry accusations. Another, the conservative politician Muneo Suzuki, ended up in jail for one year for unrelated but fairly obscure offenses. The third, the senior Foreign Ministry official Kazuhiko Togo, was invited to leave Japan as an ambassador.

The negotiator on the Russian side, the much-respected ambassador to Japan at the time, Alexander Panov, has since told me he has given up hope of any territory resolution so long as Tokyo’s Foreign Ministry hawks remain in policy control.

Japan’s efforts to get the islands back began back in 1954 when the Foreign Ministry opened talks with Moscow to recover Shikotan and the Habomai islets. Against the odds, they gained a promise of return as the Soviet leader at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, was seeking detente with the West and was willing to make concessions. But the Foreign Ministry then immediately upped its demands to include Etorofu and Kunashiri, which Japan had also owned and developed in the prewar years. Here Moscow said “nyet,” on the grounds that all the Kurils had been promised to the Soviet Union by the United States and Britain during the February 1945 Yalta talks on the postwar disposition of Japan’s prewar territories.

In the 1956 talks in Moscow on the resumption of diplomatic relations, the Soviets confirmed the promise to return Shikotan and the Habomais once a peace treaty was signed. But the nyet over the two larger islands continued.

The rights and wrongs of the dispute are confused. In addition to Yalta, Moscow can also point to the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with the Allied powers, where it is written unambiguously that Japan renounces all right, claim and title to the Kuril Islands. In October 1951, the chief of the Foreign Ministry Treaty Bureau, Kumao Nishimura, admitted reluctantly to a Diet committee that the “Kuril Islands” Japan had renounced in the peace treaty “included Etorofu and Kunashiri.”

But Tokyo points to the fact that Moscow did not attend the San Francisco talks. Also, the treaty did not say to whom the islands were to be given. And by referring to all of the disputed islands as “the Northern Territories,” Tokyo tries to imply Etorofu and Kunashiri were not part of the Kurils it renounced anyway, that it was only the “northern Kurils” that were renounced. The Nishimura statement is dismissed as a mistake.

Meanwhile Moscow continues to rely heavily on the Yalta agreement to base its claim. But the U.S. and U.K. have long since insisted, opportunistically perhaps, that parts of that agreement are no longer valid. And Tokyo can claim that it is not bound by Yalta since the Japanese did not participate. Tokyo could also use the much stronger argument that it was forced by the U.S. at San Francisco to accept the Kuril renunciation clause as part of a backroom deal between Moscow and Washington (evidence of this exists). But it does not want to admit this. It prefers to place all blame for territory loss on Moscow greed. Meanwhile Moscow can claim that any agreement to give up territory gained as part of the postwar arrangements would set a dangerous precedent. It has in any case spent heavily on the development and repopulation of the two larger islands.

On the face of things, breaking the deadlock seems impossible. But it is also clear that Moscow sees Abe’s determination to get some kind of deal as a chance to break the sanctions lock imposed on Russia’s economy by the Western powers, including Japan; already some in the West are muttering that alleged Moscow sins over eastern Ukraine separatism and the Crimea takeover used to justify the sanctions are not quite as evil as claimed. Tokyo places much hope on a Putin 2001 promise for a “hikiwake” (a judo term for a “draw”) and there is a report (since denied) that Abe adviser Shotaro Yachi visited Moscow last year to propose a 50-50 division of the territory in dispute. But in my talks with top Russian Foreign Ministry officials in Moscow last year, it was made very clear to me that Russia’s determination not to give up any of its postwar territory is unbreakable.

Indeed, some Russian nationalists now say Moscow created a dangerous precedent with its 1956 promise over Shikotan and the Habomais. That promise was predicated on Tokyo not joining any anti-Moscow alliance, and was renounced by hard-line Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in 1960 when Tokyo renegotiated its security alliance with Washington. Maybe a confirmation that Moscow still sees that promise as valid is the most that Abe can expect to receive in the way of a hikiwake. But in that case he would find it hard to convince the Foreign Ministry and other hawks that conceding any part of Japan’s sovereignty claim to the two larger islands is needed under his promise of a “new approach.” He might not end up in jail, but judging from past events he would not escape criticism.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and longtime resident in Japan who was invited to Moscow in 2015 to meet with senior Foreign Ministry officials there.