Japan’s Abe plans to pursue peace with Putin in hopes of regaining islands that Soviet Union seized more than seven decades ago

  • The return of the Kuril Islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories, has long been one of Abe’s primary foreign policy aims
PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 5:41pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 10:47pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will use a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month to further discussions over a group of islands that were seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of the second world war.

The return of the islands off Hokkaido, known in Russia as the Kurils but still marked on Japanese maps as the Northern Territories, has long been one of Abe’s primary foreign policy aims and there have been signs in recent years that he was inching closer to an agreement with Moscow – though analysts say that ultimately, Russia has no intention of giving the islands back.

That belief has been reinforced by a recent announcement of Russia’s plans to increase its military presence on some of the disputed islands, including the deployment of new anti-ship missiles.

In a radio interview that aired on Sunday, Abe said he intends to have “specific discussions” with Putin on a peace treaty – the two nations are still technically at war, due to the ongoing territorial dispute making an agreement impossible.

President Putin “has a strong determination to sign a peace treaty,” Abe said on the Radio Nippon broadcast, although he conceded that his government has yet to win the approval of the United States for one of Russia’s demands concerning the return of the islands.

Putin is insistent that no US troops be permitted to use the islands. Ostensibly, he does not want a geopolitical rival gaining a new military foothold close to his naval bases in the Pacific, but James Brown, an associate professor at the Japan campus of Temple University, believes the Russian leader has other motives.

From Moscow’s point of view, it would be wiser to string this thing out endlessly
James Brown

“It is significant that when the two leaders met at the Asia-Pacific meeting in Singapore in November, they agreed to move forward in talks based on the 1956 joint declaration, which mentions the transfer of the two smaller groups of islands but makes no mention of the two larger islands,” said Brown, an expert on Russo-Japanese relations.

“Abe may be looking for a deal on the two smaller groups and then enhanced access to the others, such as visa-free access or economic opportunities. The fact that the Russians are deploying missile batteries on the larger islands does not matter much as I do not believe the deal will happen.”

The conditions that Russia is attaching to the deal are symbolic because they could potentially drive a wedge between Japan and the US, Brown said. If Abe agrees to bar American troops from using the islands it would weaken the two countries’ security alliance and could be seen as Moscow making Washington dance to its tune.

Strategically, there is no advantage for the US in stationing troops on the islands, he points out, but American diplomats have quietly acknowledged that any such agreement “would not look good”.

The Russians are also making demands that might be difficult for Japanese conservatives to swallow, such as insisting that Tokyo recognise Russian sovereignty over the islands – which would necessarily mean accepting “that it was totally defeated and that its previous claims to the islands were ‘mistaken’ ”, Brown said. “I don’t see how any Japanese government could agree to that.”

Russia has dangled the promise of progress on the return of the islands in the past and nothing was eventually agreed. The same thing may be happening again.

“The Russians can use this issue as leverage over Japan and it’s very possible they have no interest in making a deal at all,” Brown said.

“The conditions they are attaching would be quite useful to Moscow, while keeping the talks going also acts as an incentive to Japan to soften any criticism it may have of Moscow and engage in more economic cooperation because that might lead to a deal on the islands.

“But if the dispute was resolved, that would leave Japan free to be more critical of Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, it would be wiser to string this thing out endlessly.”