THE BLOG
03/14/2012 11:29 am ET Updated May 14, 2012

Japan, Russia Still Spar Over Kuriles, 67 Years After the End of WWII

The Western Pacific is a cauldron full of political disputes, from China's unilateral declaration of sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel island archipelagos to Japan and China mixing up over the title to the contested East China Sea's Senkaku/Daioyu island chains.

But looming over it all is Russia's and Japan's ongoing rival claims to the Kurile islands, a thousand-mile-long, 56-island archipelago fog enshrouded series of rocks extending from the southern tip of Russia's Kamchatka peninsula to the northern shore of Japan's Hokkaido.

On August 8, 1945, fulfilling promises made by Soviet General Secretary Iosif Stalin to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to enter the war in the Pacific after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the USSR declared war against Japan, battling Japan's Kwangtung army in Manchuria and capturing the Kuriles in a series of whirlwind amphibious campaigns against 100,000 Japanese troops. After Japan's surrender, the USSR took possession of the Kuriles and expelled 17,000 Japanese.

Since then, Japanese irredentist claims to the four southernmost islands have precluded Tokyo and Moscow signing a peace treaty to end the conflict.

It is hardly prime real estate -- before World War II, the few Japanese living in the southern Kuriles made their living by -- seaweed gathering.

And, unlike the Spratly islands, the dispute involves more national pride than any potential offshore hydrocarbon riches.

While Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin in December 1991 let the USSR peacefully implode, his administration nevertheless hung onto the Kuriles as an element of national pride, and Vladimir Putin has continued his policies.

Japan claims the so-called "Northern Territories" of the southern Kuriles, the Habomai islets, Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup (Japanese name: Etorofu).

And there's little sign of diplomatic movement on the issue. On March 8, Japan reiterated that it will only sign a peace treaty with the Russian Federation if it returns the disputed "Northern Territories" Kuril islands. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said that his government wanted all four islands returned and would not accept a Russian offer to return part of the islands, but, in a sign of a slight thawing of the issues, last week Japan dropped the term "illegal occupation," for the Kuriles and agreed to refer to the islands as being "occupied without legal grounds."

Last year the issue heated up when then President Dmitrii Medvedev sparked a diplomatic row with Tokyo in November 2010 by making the first ever visit by a Russian leader to the Kuriles. The Japanese government warned Moscow that his visit to the Northern Territories would "seriously damage relations," but the warning was rejected as "an insult," undermining Russian territorial integrity. Tokyo subsequently criticized Medvedev's trip and recalled its Moscow ambassador "for consultations" even as the Russian Federation's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized the Japanese criticism as "unacceptable," stressing that "this is our land."

The imbroglio brings to mind the comments of eminent Argentinean writer Jorge Borges over the seemingly equally interminable dispute over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. When the two countries went to war in 1982 over their rival claims Borges pithily observed that it was like "two bald men fighting over a comb."

And now?

Apart from isolated Russian military garrisons, only five islands are permanently inhabited, with a population roughly equivalent to Japan's prewar settlers.

The irony is that now both countries need one another. The Russian Federation's Far Eastern and Maritime provinces, isolated from the country's European regions, are both sparsely populated and rich in resources, which Japan's industries would love to exploit, not least the rich hydrocarbon reserves situated around Sakhalin island. Moscow has essentially ignored the region for decades and it has remained short of funding.

Furthermore, China is also interested in the region's reserves, and an increasingly prosperous China is viewed uneasily in both Tokyo and Moscow.

So, not only do the two countries have a commonality of economic interests, but their political agendas are also increasingly in alignment.

Russia needs billions in investment to develop its Sakhalin energy resources, and Japan needs reliable energy sources, besides being the one of the world's largest economies, flush with cutting-edge technology as well.

Is it really worth it for the two nations to continue to let a "glorious" one month-long Soviet military campaign of 67 years ago continue to bedevil their common larger interests in the north Pacific? After all, Russia is going to have to sell its Sakhalin oil and natural gas somewhere, and a Japan whose pride is salved by the return of the four "Northern Territory" islets would not doubt prove not only an eager, but grateful customer as well.

An issue for politicians in both Tokyo and Moscow to consider.

John C.K Daly is the chief analyst at the energy news site Oilprice.com. Dr. Daly received his Ph.D. in 1986 from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

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