Report

Why Putin Is Squaring Off With Tokyo Over Some Pacific Rocks

Japan wants to end a decades-long fight with Russia over control of the Kuril Islands. But a paranoid Kremlin is doubling down instead.

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Disputed rocks and Beijing’s bad behavior in the South China Sea dominate the headlines these days. But there’s another showdown over disputed islands in the Pacific that is increasingly casting a shadow over Asia-Pacific security: a bitter fight between Japan and Russia over the Kurils.

Russia is ramping up its military presence on the southern Kuril Islands, located just off the northern coast of Japan, which it seized in the waning hours of World War II and has held on to ever since. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu used a visit to the far eastern port of Vladivostok this week to stress that Moscow would accelerate military and civilian infrastructure construction on the southernmost islands. Russia also plans to hold additional military exercises, including amphibious landings, on the Kurils this summer. Russia may also hold World War II commemorations on the islands this fall, further rubbing salt into the wound.

The timing is hardly fortuitous: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has spent years trying to improve relations with Russia, made his first visit to Ukraine last week on his way to the G-7 summit. While there, Abe talked up the importance of the rule of law and territorial integrity, remarks that his Ukrainian hosts understood were not limited to the Russian land grab in eastern Ukraine. Russia seems to have reached the same conclusion.

“As Abe visited Ukraine, Russia could not remain silent,” said Celine Pajon, a Japan expert at the French Institute of International Relations.

The ratcheting up of tensions over the Kurils underscores Japan’s tricky balancing act when it comes to Russia, China, and the United States. For years, Japan has sought closer economic ties with Russia, especially regarding energy; those desires have only grown stronger in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor accident that took one-third of Japan’s power generation off-line. Japan is the biggest customer for Russian liquefied natural gas, for example, and the two sides sought to build a $13 billion gas terminal in Vladivostok to further fuel the Japanese market, until those hopes were scuttled by the Ukraine crisis and sanctions on Russian energy firms.

At the same time, given China’s military rise and increasingly shrill attitude toward Tokyo, Abe sought closer ties with Russia — including a negotiated end to the decades-long standoff over the Kurils — as some sort of counterpoise to Beijing.

But Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula and continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine has obliged Japan to join Western countries in slapping sanctions on Russia and forced Abe to temporarily curb his desire for better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A further complication: Deepening defense ties between Japan and the United States, spurred in no small part because of an increasingly aggressive Chinese stance in the South and East China Seas, have spooked not just leaders in Beijing but also Putin.

“The Russian military activities in the far east and around the islands, for the most part, are not aimed at Japan per se, but rather at the United States,” Pajon said.

Russia has controlled the northern Kuril Islands since the 19th century. But the Russian seizure of the southern islands at the end of World War II has been a festering sore between the two countries ever since — to the point that they’ve never actually signed a peace treaty ending the war.

Japan claims the four southern islands, including Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and the Habomai rocks. Russia says it was given control over those islands by late-war agreements, such as the Yalta accord. Japan renounced all rights to the Kurils in the 1951 treaty with the Allied powers that formally ended the war, but the Soviets never signed that treaty. (And Japan says the southern islands are part of Hokkaido, anyway.) The U.S. State Department recognizes Japanese sovereignty over the southern islands.

In recent years, Russia has used its Pacific foothold to show off its reinvigorated military. It started ramping up military construction on the Kurils in 2011, and held military drills there last year and earlier this spring. The Mistral-class amphibious warships that Russia ordered from France — and which were one of the highest-profile casualties of Moscow’s frosty relations with Europe — were meant to put more backbone into the Pacific Fleet, especially around the Kurils.

But after Abe took office in 2012, both sides seemed closer to finally resolving the spat. Energy, in particular, seemed as if it might offer a way out of the impasse: Russia has loads of natural gas and is seeking more customers in Asia, while Japan needs new supplies to keep its economy running with dozens of nuclear plants offline and with an uncertain future.

Despite strains over Ukraine and the Kurils, hope for energy diplomacy still springs eternal. In May, Japanese officials again broached the idea of an undersea natural gas pipeline connecting Russia to Japan, though Russian energy bosses poured cold water on the idea. Tokyo still hopes to smooth over the issues if Putin visits the country as planned later this year.

“Despite Russian renewed activities around the islands, I still think that Abe is keen to continue the discussion on a possible deal with Putin,” said Pajon. “I don’t think that the prospect of a rapprochement is definitively lost, but it will take more time.”

Photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP

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