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Russia and Japan’s Kuril Islands Territorial Dispute: How Likely is a Resolution?

By Ilya Akdemir

Billboard in Japan demanding the return of the four Kuril Islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai off the coast of Japan’s northern Hokkaido Prefecture. The legal status of these four islands has been a cause of controversy between Russia and Japan for over 71 years.

On December 15th, 2016, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will pay a visit to Japan. The discussions between President Putin and Prime Minister Abe will primarily concern trade and other issues of bilateral relations. But in recent weeks, there have been indicators from both Japanese and the Russian sources that new steps are being taken to resolve the longstanding territorial dispute between the two countries over the Kuril Islands.

Situated north of Japan’s Hokkaido Prefecture, the Kuril Islands are a chain of volcanic islands that extend 1200 km from Japan’s northern Hokkaido Prefecture to Russia’s Kamchatka Region. Although a part of Russia’s Sakhalin Oblast, the four southernmost islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai off the coast of Hokkaido Prefecture – known as the four South Kuril Islands – are claimed by both Russia and Japan. Apart from being rich in resources, the islands form a strategically important gateway to Russia’s resource-rich Far Eastern regions and the Sea of Okhotsk.

The origins of the territorial dispute can be traced all the way back to the end of the Second World War. Although the war ended in 1945 with the victory of the Allied forces, the USSR refused to sign the 1951 Peace Treaty of San Francisco, which meant that, legally, the Soviet Union has had no formal peace treaty with Japan.

To restore relations, in 1956 USSR and Japan signed a Joint Declaration, which ended the state of war between the two states. However, it’s important to note that under international law this Joint Declaration did not necessarily constitute a formal peace treaty – indeed, Article 9 of the Joint Declaration specifically states that “the USSR and Japan agree to continue, after the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between the USSR and Japan, negotiations for the conclusion of a Peace Treaty.” Considering the Russian Federation is the legal successor to USSR under the Alma-Ata Protocol and Belavezha Accords of 1991, this lack of formal peace has remained a part of Russia-Japan relations to this day.

The Kuril Islands were an important element in the Soviet Union’s decision to refuse to sign the 1951 Peace Treaty. This is best demonstrated by then Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko’s statement, which outlined USSR’s key objections to the Peace Treaty, one of which was the issue of sovereignty over Kuril Islands and the nearby South Sakhalin. Gromyko stated that “the draft confines itself to a mere mention of the renunciation by Japan of rights, title and claims to these territories and makes no mention of the historic appurtenance of these territories and the indisputable obligation on the part of Japan to recognize the sovereignty of the Soviet Union over these parts of the territory of the USSR.”

Of particular importance to the Kuril Islands territorial dispute between Japan and Russia is Article 1(b) of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty which states that “The Allied Powers recognize the full sovereignty of the Japanese people over Japan and its territorial waters.” But what’s interesting about this territorial dispute is the fact that Article 2(c) of the 1951 Peace Treaty clearly states that “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Kurile Islands.” However, despite this rather express language of the Article 2(c) of the Treaty, Japan still claims sovereignty over Kuril Islands.

The reason why Japan still has, or argues to have a legal claim over the Kuril Islands is that Japan refers to some of those islands – specifically the four islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai islands – as “Northern Territories”, which are seen as an inherent part of territory of Japan and an extension of the Hokkaido Prefecture. Japan claims that these four islands have always been Japanese territories and hence do not constitute a part of “Kuril Islands” under the 1951 Treaty.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Yoshida’s statement at the 1951 Conference in San Francisco claimed that these islands had been taken unilaterally by the Soviet forces on September 20th, 1945, shortly after the surrender of Japan and the official announcement of the surrender on August 15th, 1945, which was officially signed on September 2nd, 1945. Indeed, Russian historical works on the subject also confirm that the invasion and occupation of the Kuril Islands happened after the official announcement of Japan’s Surrender, in the period between August 28th and September 5th.

The fact that USSR did not sign the 1951 Peace Treaty makes it difficult to ascertain what “Kurile Islands” meant for both parties, even though USSR did participate. Nevertheless, Russia refers specifically to the wording of the 1945 Yalta Agreement signed towards the end of the war between the Allied Powers. Of interest is Article 3 of the Yalta Agreement, which explicitly states that the Kuril Islands shall be handed over to the Soviet Union. Therefore, the takeover of islands after the official surrender of Japan is seen as having a legal basis under the 1945 Yalta Agreement.

The territorial dispute surrounding the Kuril Islands has lasted for over 71 years but recently, there has been a renewed push at negotiating an agreement and signing a formal Peace Treaty between the two states. The Ministers of Foreign Affairs of both countries are claiming they are working on a deal in time for the arrival of President Putin to Japan on the 15th of December, 2016. Some argue, that there could perhaps be an agreement on a model for the joint Russo-Japanese administration of the disputed islands.

On the other hand, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov has stated that the process is not going to be easy. Indeed the recent military buildup on the Kuril Islands by Russia puts a big question mark on the hopes of achieving a peace deal in the near future. Furthermore, Lavrov has recently claimed that it would be a mistake to have excessively high expectations of a peace deal any time soon.

The bilateral negotiations and statements we’ve heard in recent months seem to be a clear indicator of a possible change in the established status quo of this territorial dispute. A solution to the Kuril Islands question seems closer than ever and it is highly likely that we might witness a Peace Treaty between Japan and Russia in our lifetimes. It is unlikely that we will see the Peace Treaty this month – nevertheless, commentators have argued that as long as President Putin and Prime Minister Abe are in office, there exists a chance for an agreement.

The Asia-Pacific region has recently seen an increase in tensions – this is especially evident through the many controversies surrounding the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Seeing a resolution of the longstanding dispute between Japan and Russia over the Kuril Islands could perhaps lead to a decrease in tensions in this region and would undoubtedly lead to better relations between the two states.



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