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The Kurils: Japan needs to move on

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31 May 2011 13:17

Dr Alexey Muraviev is Director of the Strategic Flashlight forum on National Security and Strategy at Curtin University of Technology, Perth.

The 37th G-8 Summit in Deauville, France, gave Russia an opportunity to strengthen its foothold in the Pacific, and not just through a final go-ahead of the Mistral amphibious ships deal, which has become a stumbling block in the past two months or so.

A week prior to the Summit, a high profile delegation of senior officials, including Vice Premier Sergei Ivanov, Minister of Economic Development Elvira Nabibullina and Minister for Transport Igor Levitin visited what Japan describes as the 'disputed northern territories'.

The purpose of the visit was two-fold: to discuss near and long-term development strategy of the Kuril Island Chain, and to send a clear signal to Japan prior to G-8 meeting — Moscow has made up its mind about the future of the four disputed islands.

As expected, the visit caused an immediate knee-jerk reaction from Tokyo by formal expressions of regret that Russian officials have once again inspected the alleged Japanese territory. This was likely driven by both domestic motives (the need for the ruling party to appease conservative voters) and by regional foreign policy considerations.

Japan's uncompromising stance with its neighbouring great power over a territorial dispute helps it to retain its regional status in times when another residual great power, the People's Republic of China, has overtaken Japan as the world's number two economy and is being rather tough with Tokyo on a number of matters.

What is becoming quite clear, however, is that Tokyo, being more and more preoccupied with the PRC's rise, might ignore the obvious position of the Kremlin — the four islands of the southern sector of the Kuril Chain will remain under Russia's control.  

After years of sending mixed signals to Tokyo, President Medvedev's Administration has established a final view regarding this long-standing bilateral dispute. In 2011 alone, the federal Government has committed 16 billion rubles (over US$571 million) to support infrastructure upgrades and improved living conditions for local communities.

Besides national prestige, Russia's interest in the four islands is driven by both economic and military-strategic considerations. The economic value comes firstly from the potential of mining precious minerals such as rhenium and gold; deposits of the latter are estimated to be as high as 250 tons. Waters surrounding the Chain are also rich with fish stocks and other marine products.

The military-strategic value of the islands comes from their location. The chain, particularly its southern sector, acts as a defensive barrier to the maritime face of the Far East and the Sea of Okhotsk, an operational area for Russian ballistic missile submarines. Deep water channels between the southern islands are equally important, as they allow the flow of merchant marine and naval traffic (including submarine transfers) from Vladivostok to the open ocean.

Russia's decision to upgrade its defensive posture around the Chain should send Tokyo another signal that the Russians have no intent to abandon their far eastern territories. Also, from the political-military viewpoint, Moscow continues to view Japan through the strategic prism of its balancing act against US military power in the Pacific.

Finally, for any decision-maker in Russia to make a territorial concession to Japan during parliamentary elections, which are being held in Russia this year, followed by next year's presidential elections, would be committing political suicide, regardless of approval ratings or ruling party support.
 
Tokyo needs a reality check. The Yeltsin era bargaining game — 'islands in exchange for investments' — is over. No doubt, Russia needs massive foreign investment, particularly if it wants to shift its economy from being resource driven to high-tech powered. But strategic economic investment should not be mistaken for economic aid, which Moscow was desperately seeking throughout the troubled 1990s.

The Russians have a pragmatic understanding that Japan today needs them as much as they need it. Russia is playing a more and more visible role in meeting Japan's energy requirements, an interdependence which will grow, post-Fukushima. Japanese companies are also moving their production to Russia: it is easier to nominate a Japanese car maker that does not have a production facility there.

The Japanese Government appears to lack a clear strategy on how to pursue its 'northern territories' agenda, which further weakens its stand in its discussions with Moscow. It would be surprising if many in Tokyo actually realise that returning the four islands is as feasible as seeing the US selling Alaska to back the Russians.

Perhaps the real value for Japan may come from having Russia on its side in its own balancing game against PRC. Recognising long-term strategic dividends over clearly unrealistic expectations that lead to dead-ends is the way forward. 

Photo, of Shikotan Island in the Kuril Chain, courtesy of NASA.

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