Commentary / Japan

The high price of a two-island deal

by James D.J. Brown

Contributing Writer

Meeting in Singapore on Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to accelerate peace treaty negotiations on the basis of the 1956 joint declaration. This has generated excitement since the document raises the possibility of Russia transferring two islands to Japan following the conclusion of a peace treaty. However, while debate in Tokyo focuses on whether Abe is right to prioritize the return of just two of the four disputed islands, attention should be given to the conditions that Russia will apply to even a two-island deal.

As with Japan’s Constitution, it is Article 9 of the 1956 joint declaration that is the most noteworthy. This states that the Soviet Union “agrees to transfer to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan,” with “the actual transfer … to take place after the conclusion of a Peace Treaty.” Although Habomai is actually a group of islets, it is commonly referred to as a single island for convenience.

Japan rejected the Soviet offer in 1956 as insufficient, yet Abe’s decision to return to the joint declaration is not unprecedented. In particular, the Irkutsk statement that was issued by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and President Vladimir Putin in March 2001 also agreed to further peace treaty negotiations on the basis of this and other documents.

At the time of the Irkutsk summit, Japan was pursuing a compromise strategy known as “two plus alpha.” This aimed to secure the return of Shikotan and Habomai, plus some form of special arrangement that would apply to the larger islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri (Iturup and Kunashir in Russian). This approach was soon abandoned after Junichiro Koizumi replaced Mori as prime minister in April 2001. Abe’s emphasis in Singapore on the joint declaration signals that he is ready to return to it.

Although conservative critics will demand that Japan continue to press for the return of all four islands, Abe’s approach is more realistic. Above all, it acknowledges the relative weakness of Japan’s claim to the two larger islands.

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt and Churchill promised Stalin that, in return for entering the war against Japan, “the Kuril Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union.” Moreover, in the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, Japan agreed to renounce “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands.”

Subsequent Japanese governments have tried to argue that the disputed islands are not part of the Kuril chain but constitute a distinct geographic entity known as the “Northern Territories.” This is disingenuous since there is clear evidence that, at the time of the San Francisco Treaty, the Japanese government considered Etorofu and Kunashiri to be part of the Kurils. As such, it makes sense for Japan to target the return of Shikotan and Habomai, over which it has a better claim.

Abe’s embrace of “two plus alpha” demonstrates an admirable pragmatism, yet even the delivery of a two-island deal will be extremely difficult. This was emphasized by Putin after the Singapore meeting, when he remarked that the joint declaration “says nothing about specific legal grounds for ceding these islands, their subsequent jurisdiction or the procedure for handing them over.”

Putin’s comments were a reminder that Japan cannot simply expect to sign a peace treaty and immediately take possession of Shikotan and Habomai. Instead, several conditions would have to be fulfilled. This is only logical since, if Moscow is to concede territory that it has held for 73 years and that is home to 3,000 Russian citizens, it will require something in return.

The most basic condition would be the requirement for Japan to accept that the territorial dispute has been permanently resolved. Some Japanese politicians imagine that Japan could secure the transfer of Shikotan and Habomai, then continue negotiations about the status of Etorofu and Kunashiri. This is entirely unrealistic since Russia would hardly agree to give up two islands only to leave itself still embroiled in a territorial dispute.

Instead, Japan would need to explicitly recognize Russian sovereignty over Etorofu and Kunashiri. The “alpha” of the deal would come, not in the form of continued talks, but in an agreement that would grant Japanese citizens visa-free access to the larger islands, as well as joint economic projects of the type already under discussion.

The second condition would be the need to allay Russia’s concern that U.S. forces could be stationed on Shikotan and Habomai. Since an oral commitment would not be judged sufficient, Japan would need to exclude the two islands from the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which grants the United States basing rights on Japanese territory.

This would not be the first time that the 1956 joint declaration was directly linked to the Japan-U.S. security treaty. Specifically, in response to the signing of the revised treaty in January 1960, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev effectively suspended Article 9 of the declaration by stating that the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan would occur “only if all foreign troops are withdrawn from Japan.” It was only under Putin that the validity of the original document was again recognized.

These are likely to be the main conditions, though Moscow could also demand that Japan offer compensation to Shikotan’s residents and drop the sanctions that it introduced on Russia in 2014.

Each of these conditions is likely to prove controversial. To begin with, the Japanese public, which is accustomed to being told that all four islands are “inherent” Japanese territory, would struggle to accept the government’s recognition of Russian sovereignty over Etorofu and Kunashiri.

Additionally, placing limits on the Japan-U.S. security treaty comes with risks. Most fundamentally, it would introduce a source of tension with Japan’s major ally. It could also have implications for the Senkaku Islands. The U.S. does not officially recognize Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus, which are also claimed by China, but the Japan-U.S. security treaty is nonetheless deemed to apply on the basis that all Japanese-administered territory is covered. By defining Shikotan and Habomai as territory that is under Japanese administration yet excluded from the security treaty, Japan would be endangering that principle.

Overall, when the Abe administration assesses these conditions, it may need to accept that the price of even a two-island deal is too high to pay.

James D.J. Brown is an associate professor of political science at Temple University Japan.