Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Putin's Policy toward Japan: Return of the Two Islands, or More?

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Putin's Policy toward Japan: Return of the Two Islands, or More?

Article excerpt

It is one of the strangest anomalies in the international community today: more than five decades after the end of World War II, Japan and Russia have not yet signed a peace treaty and relations between the two nations are yet to be wholly normalized.

On one hand, we have Japan, which despite the current recession is still an economic superpower, second only to the United States; on the other, Russia, which even after the breakup of the Soviet Union is still the largest nation on earth and controls a nuclear arsenal as big as that of the United States. Both countries are members of the Group of Eight Western industrial democracies (in which Russia is a political but not financial member), and they are geographic neighbors. Further, they are in a rare complementary economic relationship, with Japan being virtually without natural resources and Russia possessing more energy and fuel resources than any other nation.

Japan and the former Soviet Union signed a joint declaration in 1956 that normalized their diplomatic relations. However, because they could not resolve territorial disputes, they were unable to sign a peace treaty. Technically, the lack of a signed peace treaty means that the two countries are still at war and that bilateral relations have not been completely normalized. In the forty-four years since the joint declaration was signed, a situation has prevailed that can scarcely be called normal. The lack of a peace treaty, which should serve as the legal framework between the two countries, creates an abnormal situation that hampers the smooth development of bilateral relationships in all fields, including politics, diplomacy, security, trade, economic cooperation, and exchanges in science, culture, and sports. This situation does not exert a positive influence on Northeast Asia, or indeed on international politics in general.

Why have these abnormal conditions persisted between the two giant neighbors? The answer is simple: because they are in direct conflict concerning the return of the Northern Territories (called the Southern Kuril Islands by the Russians) to Japanese sovereignty. The Northern Territories consist of four islands situated off the northeast coast of Hokkaido: Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and the Habomai islets. Under Stalin, Soviet troops seized the islands after Japan had accepted the conditions of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered. That is, they landed on Etorofu on 28 August 1945 and continued their attack even after Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the surrender documents onboard the Missouri on 2 September. By 3 September, they had landed on the Habomai islets and completed the occupation, including the Chishima Islands (Kurils proper). Since then, Japan has continued to demand the return of the four Northern Territories, first from the Soviet Union and now from Russia, and the Russians have continued to refuse. According to the most common interpretation of international law, the demarcation of national boundaries is an important constituent condition of any peace treaty. Because Japan and Russia cannot agree on where to draw the territorial line, they have been unable to conclude a peace treaty.(1)

Putin's Japan Policy

Vladimir Putin was appointed president of Russia on 7 May 2000. In the six months between then and the writing of this article, he has remained an enigma.(2) Although it is clear that Putin is a young and energetic politician, he is also a man of few words, making it difficult to ascertain his policies toward Japan.

For their part, the Japanese have hoped and expected that the new Russian president will reject at least some of the policies espoused by his predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. The long-term interests of both Japan and Russia would be served by resolving the Northern Territories issue, signing a peace treaty and improving Russo-Japanese relations. Improvement can be expected only if the obstacle of the Northern Territories issue is removed. …

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