Shinzo Abe

Japan’s Shinzo Abe has few choices in island dispute after Russia seeks to deploy military aircraft

Experts say such a move by Moscow could have been predicted after Putin said the only way he would consider returning the islands was if Tokyo cancelled its security agreement with Washington

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 2:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 February, 2018, 8:44pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hopes to secure the country’s claim over islands seized by the Soviet Union during the second world war appear to be in tatters after Moscow approved the deployment of Russian combat jets to the disputed region.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree allowing the country’s defence ministry to utilise facilities on the island of Iturup, which is known in Japan as Etorofu, for both military and civil aircraft.

Moscow has also said it may deploy additional ground units to the Kuril islands, which are located off the northern Hokkaido island and known in Japan as the Northern Territories. And it is reportedly toying with the idea of constructing a major new naval base there. 

The decree, signed last Friday, comes after Russia last year deployed advanced Bal-E and K-300 anti-shipping missiles to the islands. 

Stepping up the military capabilities on the islands may also be a tit-for-tat response to Japan’s decision to deploy two Aegis Ashore defensive missile systems on the north coast, which Tokyo has insisted are being installed purely to defend against ballistic missile attacks from North Korea.

But Moscow is not convinced by that explanation amid suggestions that Washington will actually be in control of the new Aegis facilities – a significant threat to Russia.

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“President [Vladimir] Putin has pretty much poured cold water on his [Abe’s] strenuous efforts to get the islands back,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.

“But perhaps this could have been predicted back when Putin told Abe that the only way he would consider returning them was contingent on Japan cancelling its security agreement with the United States.

“That was an absolute non-starter for Abe, who is feeling increasingly vulnerable as tensions rise in the region,” he added.

Privately, Abe will be extremely disappointed that the territorial dispute – which only a few years ago looked likely to go Japan’s way – has failed to materialise. 

Tokyo issued a diplomatic protest over Russia’s announcement, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Friday telling reporters: “We have said through diplomatic channels that it goes against our country’s position.”

But beyond the official protest, there is very little that Abe can do. Nevertheless, Kingston said it’s unlikely the Japanese PM will give up his claim to the region. 

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“Because he believes that if he can dangle enough carrots in front of the noses of the Russians – who want to develop Siberia and the Far East and could use Japanese investment – then perhaps Putin will one day come around,” he said.

Yet another consideration would be building bridges with Russia in an effort to offset China’s growing economic and military influence in the region, he added.

The dispute over the sovereignty of the islands has been ongoing since 1945 and has been sufficiently serious to prevent both sides from signing a peace treaty to formally end the war.

The timing of Medvedev’s decree also came at an unfortunate time. On Wednesday, Japan will mark Northern Territories Day, an annual event designed to increase public understanding of Tokyo’s claim to sovereignty over the islands.