Commentary / Japan

Putin faces hurdles of his own in territorial spat

by Dmitri V. Streltsov

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a meeting with Russian President Putin on the sidelines of the latest round of ASEAN summitry in Singapore. According to media reports, the leaders agreed to accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty based on the 1956 joint declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union. Abe told reporters he will visit Russia early next year for further talks, expressing his hope to put “an end” to the territorial issue through peace treaty talks between the two leaders. The unexpected move by the Japanese side gives food for thought on the prospects for resolving the territorial dispute, and in a broader context, about the direction in which Russian-Japanese relations are heading.

The Russian side has never denied the juridical power of the 1956 joint declaration, which restored interstate relations between the two countries and laid the basis for their long-term development. The bone of contention lies in the interpretation of Article 9 of that declaration. According to the article, after signing the peace treaty the Soviet Union should extend Shikotan Island and the Habomai group to Japan.

Moscow considers its provisions to be final in resolving the territorial dispute, while Tokyo believes them to be an intermediate stage, after which the parties should find a final solution of the fate of the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu. It is noteworthy that in the text of the declaration there is no mention of these two islands, nor any duty of the parties to continue territorial negotiations.

Japan’s proposal would not create any “acceleration” of the talks, since it repeats what has continuously been stated by Tokyo. Undoubtedly, the Russian side will never agree to any discussion beyond what is exactly stated in the 1956 declaration. In this regard, the question is: What will happen if the Japanese side suddenly agrees to “put an end” to the territorial dispute, by accepting the terms of the declaration as final and thus abandoning Kunashiri and Etorofu?

Then the ball will be in Russia’s court. Putin has always supported the position of the need to implement the 1956 joint declaration, specifying, however, that the conditions for its implementation should be the subject of consultation between lawyers. In December 2016, he said about Article 9: “… it is not written under what sovereignty; it is not written under what conditions. There are a lot of questions. Even within the framework of the 1956 declaration, there is still a lot of work to be done.” In other words, the issue of sovereignty should be the subject of further consultations with Tokyo.

Thus, the implementation of the joint declaration formula entails a number of uncertainties. It is absolutely clear that without some nonobvious legal justification it would be extremely difficult to “transfer” the islands without Russian recognition of Japanese sovereignty over them. In any case, the transfer of Shikotan — which has a population of almost 4,000 inhabitants — to the administrative control of Japan would be fraught with humanitarian and financial problems, since it would entail a drastic change in legislation and living conditions for its residents, and would require large costs for either their adaptation or their relocation to the homeland.

But on the other hand, the Russian president obviously seeks to record his name in history as the leader who settled all of the territorial disputes between Russia and its neighbors. In 2004, Russia signed a border agreement with China, and last September an updated border agreement was signed with Norway. The delimitation of the borderline with Japan in this sense would be a logical conclusion to the long and difficult process of demarcating Russian frontiers. It is noteworthy that Putin’s ambitions coincide with Abe’s aspirations — the latter also dreams of leaving his mark as a statesman who settled the border with Russia (and returned to Japan its “ancestral territories”).

An even more complicated problem for Putin hides in domestic politics. The majority of Russians (78 percent) spoke out in 2016 against the transfer of the Southern Kuril islands to Japan. Seventy-one percent of Russians are opposed to the compromise, by which Russia would transfer only Habomai and Shikotan to Japan (only 13 percent of respondents were in favor).

The transfer of even the two smaller islands would inevitably cause a flurry of criticism in Russia toward Putin. The concession of the islands to Japan, even in accordance with the international legal obligations of Russia, would definitely be perceived among many Russians as a form of “surrender.” Fifty-five percent of respondents agreed that their level of confidence in Putin would decrease if the disputed islands were transferred to Japan. The share of opponents of such a decision would definitely be higher among the conservative part of Russian society, on which Putin relies as his support base.

It is also noteworthy that the majority of Russians do not distinguish between the islands designated by the 1956 declaration and the two larger islands claimed by Japan, and in this sense both are radical steps toward the Japanese demands in the eyes of the Russian public. Even a cautious move by the Russian president toward compromise would be perceived by Russian citizens equally negatively.

The Russians do not see any need for concessions to Japan — and not only because it lost in World War II and therefore should pay for its past sins. There also exist more pragmatic considerations related to the assessment of the potential benefits for Russia from such a transaction.

On the one hand, Japan, in the view of the majority of Russians, is not only a low-priority partner for Russia, but also a strategic ally (and in the eyes of many a satellite state) of the United States — Russia’s main geopolitical adversary.

This explains the particularly pained attitude of Moscow toward the possible deployment of American military facilities on islands hypothetically transferred to Japan. It is not by chance that the impossibility of Japan’s providing guarantees against such a deployment is often cited as an argument in favor of Russian obstinacy at the talks. (However, the opposite is also true: Tokyo would be reluctant to get back the islands if they came with the “burden” of not allowing the military presence of its main ally there. In Tokyo’s eyes, this would look like a humiliating condition limiting its sovereignty over the retrieved territories).

On the other hand, neither do Russians believe in the golden rain of Japanese investment. For more than a quarter of a century, in spite of all Russia’s investment attraction efforts, Japanese businesses, with rare exceptions, did not come to Russia. It is already evident that in the coming years Japan will not be able to compete with China in the Russian market.

As for references to the 1956 declaration in the context of Russia’s legal obligations, many Russians do not consider international law a “sacred cow,” pointing to the actions of the U.S., whose leaders often act on the basis of their own ideas about political expediency. Besides, transfer of the islands to Japan, from the point of view of the silent majority of Russians, is solely a matter of the “goodwill” of Russia.

Finally, in the event of a final solution of the border problem, Russia would lose its leverage over Japan, as the latter would no longer fear disrupting territorial negotiations. It is precisely this fear that many observers insist is the reason for the softness of the Japanese sanctions against Russia and for the “pro-Russian” policy of Japan compared to other Group of Seven countries.

Dmitri V. Streltsov is the head of the Afro-Asian Department and a professor of Moscow State Institute of International Relations and leading research fellow of the Center of Japanese Studies of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. © 2018, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC