Anticipation is building that a breakthrough could finally be achieved in the territorial dispute between Japan and Russia. After more than 70 years of disagreement over the status of the Northern Territories (the Southern Kurils in Russian), there is now widespread hope in Japan that an outline deal could be agreed when President Vladimir Putin meets Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Yamaguchi Prefecture on Dec. 15.
This optimism has been generated by Abe’s announcement of a “new approach” to relations with Russia. Unveiled in Sochi in May, this policy includes the proposal for a major increase in economic cooperation in eight areas, including health care, energy and urban development. The calculation is that, taking advantage of Russia’s current economic difficulties, these upfront incentives will induce concessions and make possible the signing of a territorial deal and related peace treaty.
At least in its initial stages this “new approach” has performed well as the Russian side has responded enthusiastically to the offer of increased investment and Putin has reiterated his desire to end the territorial dispute. The talks to be held at the Yamaguchi summit are therefore unquestionably important. What sort of deal, however, will each leader be seeking and what are the prospects of success?
The negotiating positions are closely guarded secrets, but, by closely examining officials’ public statements, it is possible to identify the key features. Starting with the Japanese side, Abe must work within narrow parameters. Personally he appears to recognize the near impossibility of securing the return of all four islands and is therefore inclined to compromise. At the same time, he cannot simply abandon Japan’s long-standing claims to sovereignty. As such, Abe must find a way of securing the return of some territory without altogether giving up Japan’s claims to the other islands.
The Japanese leader’s apparent way of balancing these considerations is to propose a peace treaty that involves the transfer to Japan of only the two smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai. These account for only 7 percent of the total disputed land area and their transfer after the signing of a peace treaty has already been agreed in the joint declaration of 1956. The more difficult part of the deal is the proposal that the status of the larger islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri (Iturup and Kunashir in Russian) should be left open. This could be done by agreeing to continue discussions about these islands at a later date. Even if it were known that these talks would never actually lead to the return of the islands, this arrangement would enable Abe to assert that he has not abandoned Japan’s claim to sovereignty over Etorofu and Kunashiri.
Another intriguing option for enabling Japan to maintain its claim to sovereignty over all four islands is joint administration. On Oct. 17, the Nikkei newspaper reported that the Japanese government was considering this exact idea. Although subsequently denied, this story was likely a tactical leak by the Abe administration to assess public attitudes to such a compromise.
Although regarded as controversial by many in Japan, these concessions are not likely to go far enough to secure Putin’s agreement. Within Russia, there is strong public opposition to returning the territory due to the perception that the islands are Russian by right of Soviet victory in World War II. Although Putin enjoys approval ratings in excess of 80 percent and appears eager to end the dispute, he will be reluctant to go directly against Russian public opinion on this most emotive of historical issues.
In December, the Russian side is therefore likely to offer a deal that falls well short of Japanese expectations. Putin has frequently highlighted the 1956 joint declaration as a key document since it has been ratified by both countries. This indicates that the Russian president is willing to agree to the transfer of Shikotan and Habomai. He has never given any sign, however, of willingness to compromise in any way over Etorofu and Kunashiri.
What is more, it appears that even Shikotan and Habomai would not be transferred to Japan without restrictions. At the G-20 summit in September, Putin told journalists that the joint declaration does “not state on what conditions this handover is to take place, and who has sovereignty afterwards.” This suggests that the two islands might only be transferred to Japan on condition that Russia retains some say in their administration. Moscow may claim that this is necessary to uphold the rights of Shikotan’s approximately 3,000 Russian residents.
Overall then, while the Japanese government is pressing for two islands plus, Russia is inclined to agree to two islands minus. This might seem like a bridgeable gap but, in reality, there seems little prospect of either side offering further concessions. As a result, it is unlikely that a breakthrough will be achieved in December.
This is not to say, however, that the Yamaguchi summit will end in failure. The Russian side is eager for economic cooperation to continue and is grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate that the Group of Seven is not united behind U.S. efforts to isolate Russia. As such, Putin will be willing to make an agreement in December that creates the appearance of progress on the territorial issue. It is not yet clear what this might be, but one option is the expansion of the visa-free program to permit all Japanese citizens to visit the disputed islands.
Such a small-scale agreement would be meager reward for all Abe’s efforts. What is more, there is a risk that Japan will attract international criticism for pursuing closer relations with Russia at a time when Western governments are forcefully criticizing Moscow for alleged war crimes in Syria and cyber-attacks on the United States. In the worst-case scenario, a crisis could break out between Russia and the West just prior to, or even during, Putin’s visit. This would be a diplomatic catastrophe for Abe.
In short, considering the slim prospects of a favorable territorial deal and the risks involved, it would seem that Japanese expectations for the December summit need to be significantly scaled down.
James D.J. Brown is an associate professor of political science at Temple University, Japan Campus, and the author of “Japan, Russia and their Territorial Dispute,” published by Routledge
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