Feb. 7 is Northern Territories Day, the date on which Japan officially campaigns for the return of the Russian-held islands (otherwise known as the Southern Kurils) just off the northeast coast of Hokkaido. Speaking at this year’s national rally, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe struck a conciliatory tone, avoiding the claim that the islands are “inherent” Japanese territory and omitting any explicit demand for their immediate return. He also stressed the potential for Japanese and Russians to make use of this borderland together.
Although often described as a nationalist, when it comes to policy on Russia, Abe is pragmatic, if not dovish. He has distanced himself from previous administrations’ fanciful insistence on the return of “all four islands as a bunch.” Instead, he has prioritized maximizing access to the territory for Japanese citizens after all were expelled from the islands following their occupation by the Soviet Union in 1945.
One element of this policy has been to negotiate the start of charter flights to the islands for elderly former residents and their families. The first of these occurred in September and there are expectations for a further flight this year.
Even more important is the proposal to conduct joint economic activities on the disputed islands. An agreement to discuss such projects was the main outcome of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s otherwise disappointing visit to Japan in December 2016. At a summit last September, Abe and Putin approved five priority areas for these projects. Joint survey visits to identify suitable sites were conducted in June and October.
It is unlikely that these projects would be profitable. Indeed, they could prove costly for the Japanese government, which would be expected to provide the bulk of the financing. The projects would, however, have political value since Japanese negotiators are insisting they be conducted under a legal framework that does not contradict Japan’s sovereignty claims. In other words, they would not be subject to ordinary Russian law.
If agreement on this crucial legal issue could be reached, it would represent a partial concession by Russia on the question of sovereignty. In practical terms, it would enable Japanese citizens to visit and work on the islands without a visa. The Abe administration hopes this would begin the process of returning Japanese influence to the islands, potentially leading to a more favorable territorial resolution in years to come.
With this clear goal in mind, Abe is set to visit Russia in May, where he will attend both the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and the formal opening of the Year of Japan and Russia at the Bolshoi Theater. The timing is considered favorable because Putin is expected to be re-elected president in March. With this supposedly being his final term in office, there are hopes in Japan that he will have an eye on his legacy and will be inclined to adopt a positive attitude toward the territorial issue.
The task of persuading Russia to grant Japanese citizens privileged access to what is regarded as a sensitive border zone was never going to be straightforward. However, it became significantly more difficult in December when Abe’s Cabinet approved the purchase of two units of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system.
Japan argues that the system is needed as an additional line of defense against missile attack from North Korea, adding to the interceptors on Aegis-equipped destroyers and ground-based Patriot batteries. The Russian side, however, dismisses this as a pretext, arguing that Aegis Ashore is disproportionate to the North Korean missile threat.
According to Maria Zakharova, official spokeswoman of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “It is obvious that the deployment of this system represents yet another step toward the creation of an Asia-Pacific regional segment of the U.S.’ global missile defense system and is at odds with efforts to guarantee peace and stability in the region.” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also dismissed reassurances that the system would remain under Japan’s independent control.
As well as accusing Japan of working with the United States to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent, Moscow has suggested Aegis Ashore has an offensive function, providing Japan with a potential strike capability involving ground-launched cruise missiles. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, this will make Japan complicit in the violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Ryabkov added that Aegis Ashore therefore “creates a new situation that we logically must take account of in our military planning.”
The first indication of a concrete Russian response came on Jan. 30 when Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed an order authorizing the Ministry of Defense to base military aircraft at the civilian airport on Etorofu Island, or Iturup as the Russians call it. This will enable Russia to operate fighter jets from the disputed islands for the first time since the end of the Soviet Union.
Added to this, Russia announced on Feb. 6 the start of military exercises in the Kuril chain, featuring 2,000 troops and including a counterterror drill on Kunashiri, another of the disputed islands. Coming on the eve of Japan’s Northern Territories Day and on the same day that the countries’ deputy foreign ministers met in Tokyo to discuss the joint economic activities, this move was clearly intended to send a signal to the Japanese government.
At present, talks about joint economic activities seem set to continue and Abe still intends to visit Russia in May. Nonetheless, there are signs that the bilateral atmosphere has soured. Foreign Minister Taro Kono not only condemned the Russian military exercises, he went further, claiming that “the current world of nuclear weapons is being destabilized, not by the United States, but by Russia, which, in line with its military doctrine, is developing tactical warheads with low-yield charges.” This has “put the United States in such a position that it has to start to develop” such weapons itself, he said.
With these accusations continuing to fly, even Abe’s more modest ambitions with regard to the disputed islands seem set to be frustrated.
James D.J. Brown is an associate professor at Temple University, Japan Campus. He specializes in Japan-Russia relations.