Beijing quiet on venture in disputed Kurils

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 February, 2011, 12:00am

Chinese and Russian firms have formed a joint venture to farm sea cucumbers, a prized delicacy, off an island at the centre of a decades-old territorial dispute between Russia and Japan, but Beijing is unlikely to interfere.

Mainland-based international-relations experts believe Beijing will treat the venture off Kunashir, one of the Kuril Islands to the north of Japan's northernmost main island, purely as a business deal and adopt a hands-off approach.

They warn, however, that if more Chinese companies join in such a 'dangerous game', there could be a 'diplomatic war' between China and Russia - on one side - and Japan.

Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said on Tuesday that Japan's determination to claim the four Kuril Islands, which it lost after the end of the second world war, remained unchanged. Tokyo refers to the islands as its Northern Territories.

Japanese media have reported that a fisheries company in Dalian, Liaoning, signed a memorandum of understanding with a Russian company this month, and that a team from the Chinese company was set to conduct an environmental assessment of Kunashir Island in April.

'It's quite a dangerous game, as Russia is obviously aiming to bring in foreign investment to consolidate and enhance its impact and administration of sovereignty over the disputed islands,' said Cheng Yijun , a Russian-relations expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 'But the deal has put Beijing in a very embarrassing position because if China opposes it, Russia will be unhappy, while Japan will get angry if China supports it.'

He said the deal would also push Japan closer to the United States, making the security situation in northeast Asia more complicated.

While Beijing did not confirm or deny the deal, the Global Times, a newspaper under the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, quoted Beijing-based experts as supporting Chinese investment on the disputed islands.

Tian Chunsheng, a specialist on Sino-Russian economic relations, said Beijing would probably turn a blind eye to the deal.

'It is a win-win deal because it will be a profitable business for the Dalian company, as prices of sea cucumbers from Hokkaido waters are much higher than others in the Chinese market, while Russia needs Chinese funding and technology to boost the economy of the islands,' she said. 'Our government has no reason to turn it down.

'I believe more Chinese companies will show interest in investing on the islands and I know that many South Korean companies have also shown interest.'

A staff member at Dalian's Foreign Trade Economic Co-operation Bureau said yesterday said that it was verifying reports of the deal.

'So far we don't know any details of the deal, including the name of the fishery company, because we just got the news from the media this afternoon,' the staff member said. 'The company was supposed to inform us and apply for an overseas investment permit first.'

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said on Tuesday that the ministry 'doesn't know anything at all' about the deal. He also reiterated Beijing's stance that the islands dispute was a matter for Japan and Russia to resolve.

The reported deal has sparked an outcry in Japan.

'If it's true, that's incompatible with our country's position,' Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

Jiang Lifeng , an expert on Sino-Japanese relations, said Tokyo would have no grounds for blaming Beijing for the Kunashir deal because no governments were involved.

'There was nothing wrong with the Dalian company signing the deal with Russia, who is now ruler of the islands,' he said.

'Indeed, the Chinese company needs to set up infrastructure on the islands before farming sea cucumbers. The Japanese should welcome it if they still want to claim the territory, as the investment will help improve the local villagers' living standards.'

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid a visit to Kunashir in November, becoming the first Russian leader to visit the Kurils.

After the visit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his country would welcome Chinese and South Korean investment on the islands.