Russia And Japan At Odds Again Over Remote, Energy-Rich Kuril Islands

  on

Current
Current Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, then President Medvedev, visiting in the Kurils back in November 2010. He is walking past old rusting defense installations formerly used to protect the area. Photo from Reuters.

Maritime disputes seem to dot the entire coastline of East Asia. In the south, nations bicker over the status of the South China Sea. In the East China Sea, Japan and China squabble over who truly owns the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. In the Sea of Japan, Japan and Korea argue over which country Takeshima / Dokdo really belongs to. The disputes include the islands' names, which change depending on the country. 

And in the north, Japan is also in a controversial and seemingly endless spat with Russia over the Kuril Islands, which it calls the Northern Territories -- a chain of 18 volcanic islands that span from the northern tip of Japan's Hokkaido Island to the southern tip of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. Russia administers all 18 of the islands, but Japan claims that the southernmost four are being held illegally and should be returned.

A visit this week by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the Southern Kurils has drawn anger from Tokyo. Protection and development of the Far East was a major pet project of Medvedev in his previous capacity as Russian president, also an effective means of building his nationalistic credentials.

The Russian prime minister said Tuesday that the islands are our territory which should develop just like the mainland of our country, before his departure to Kunashir (known as Kunashiri in Japan), the southernmost island in the chain, and therefore the one closest to Japan.

Russia is now embarking on a major initiative to strenghten its eastern provinces. Medvedev has promised funding to develop the Kurils' infrastructure and boost defenses. The government is also exploring subsidizing air travel in the area to overcome the difficulty of transportation across vast distances (the Kurils are 4,100 miles, or 6,600 kilometers, by air from Moscow.) Russia is eager to tap into the vast resources of its Far Eastern provinces, rich in fisheries, timber, minerals and hydrocarbons. But the area is sparsely populated and long neglected by the capital.

We have to develop new investment projects, including those with the participation of foreign firms, said Medvedev.

In a gesture showing the importance it now places on the region, the Russian government has recently created a new Ministry for the Far East. In a meeting with the regional governments of Eastern Russia on Monday, Medvedev noted that over the past five years more than 300 billion rubles [$9.3 billon] of federal budget funding have been allocated for projects that form part of the targeted program to develop the Far East and the Trans-Baikal Territory and over 110 billion [$3.4 billion] additional rubles will be allocated over the next two years.

Another
Another photo-op: The Russian PM ready to board a new train servicing Vladivostok's airport on Tuesday. Photos from Reuters.

This September, Russia will host the APEC Summit in Vladivostok, a port city on the Northern Pacific founded in 1860 as a hub for expanding Russian influence and power into East Asia. (Its very name, in fact, means rule the East in Russian.) 

Indeed, the story of territorial tensions between Russia and Japan is a long one, tied to the imperial expansion of both countries into the far northeast areas of the Asian continent.

In 1855, as colonists from both countries moved into the region, their governments first agreed to outline a border between two islands in the Kurils: Iturup (Etorofu in Japan) and Urup (Uruppu in Japan). In 1875, the two countries agreed that Japan would control all 18 islands in the chain as long as it recognized Russian control over the larger island of Sakhalin to the west. By the end of 1905, the Russo-Japanese War with the defeat of Czarist Russia left Japan in control of southern Sakhalin.

The secluded, remote nature of the area made it a perfect staging ground for the fleet of Japanese ships that eventually launched the surprise attack in 1941 against Pearl Harbor.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union seized the entire region, stopping just short of landing on the Japanese main island of Hokkaido. Kunashir is itself only 15 miles from Hokkaido's shores.

By 1946, the 17,000 Japanese residents on the Kuril Islands were kicked out, and today roughly double that number of Russian residents, mostly fishermen, call the area home.

The
The Russian PM, visiting a fishing port in Southern Sakhalin on Tuesday. Photo from Reuters.

Japan and Russia have never formally signed a peace treaty after World War II, hampering their territorial negotiations.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry summoned Russia's ambassador in Tokyo to file a complaint on Tuesday. Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Kenichiro Sasae told Ambassador Yevgeny Afanasiyev that the islands were integral to Japan, therefore a visit of this kind is unacceptable for Japan and deeply regrettable.

Japan's Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said that the visit pours cold water on relations between the two countries on Tuesday.

In response, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Medvedev was was on an ordinary trip across his country. Our Japanese neighbors know about Russia's position perfectly well, said Lavrov.

The protests from Tokyo will likely fall on unsympathetic ears. After all, after so much investment from the government in both monetary and political capital, Moscow is unlikely to backtrack and heed Japanese demands.

If anything, relations between the two have only worsened in the recent past as Russian strategic bombers and maritime patrol aircraft have resumed flights in the Pacific, a practice dating back to the Cold War. Defense analysts largely see the move as a means for Russia to demonstrate its intentions to protect its territorial interests in the area.

Medvedev noted on Tuesday that he considered the Kuril visits by top government officials crucially important. We have been doing it before and, naturally, this practice will be continued by the new Cabinet, said the prime minister.

Join the Discussion