Kuril Islands

  • The Second World War left behind many problems inherited from history, not least in Asia regarding multiple disputed territories.
  • One of them concerns four islands in the Kurile chain that are claimed by Japan but occupied by Russia as the successor state of the Soviet Union.
  • The islands in question are a group of four islands located between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean near Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture. After the end of World War II, the Soviet Union took control of the islands and expelled the Japanese residents by 1949. Since then, both Moscow and Tokyo have claimed sovereignty over the islands. The Japanese government argues that the islands have been part of Japan since the early 19th century.
  • Despite the passage of over 70 years, this dispute has defied resolution and prevented the conclusion of a Russo-Japanese peace treaty
  • But Japan claims the two large southernmost islands, Etorofu and Kunashiri, and two others, Shikotan and Habomai, as its ‘northern territories’.
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  • Moscow’s legal claim is based on the post-war settlements of Yalta and San Francisco, whereas the Japanese claim is founded on the Russia-Japan treaties of 1855 and 1875.
The significance of these islands:
The Kuril Islands stretch from the Japanese island of Hokkaido to the southern tip of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, separating the Okhotsk Sea from the North Pacific Ocean. This chain is included in the belt of geologic instability circling the Pacific, also known as the Ring of Fire. It has over 100 volcanoes, out of which 35 are still active, and numerous hot springs.
Natural resources: The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are thought to have offshore reserves of oil and gas.
Strategic Importance: Russia has deployed missile systems in the region. Russia also plans a submarine project and intends to prevent any American military use of the islands.
Cultural Importance: The Japanese people, especially conservatives in Hokkaido, are emotionally attached to the islands.

Steps taken by both governments for active engagement:
  • After Mr. Putin visited Japan in 2016, both leaders embarked on some joint undertakings on the islands without calling into question the claims and legal positions of either side.
  • In two summits last year, they agreed to joint field surveys and joint economic activities with the identification of specific projects, the enterprises that would undertake them, and three levels of supervision.
  • These proposals cover marine species and aquaculture, greenhouse strawberry and vegetable cultivation, the development of package tourism, wind power generation, and the reduction and disposal of garbage.
  • They also agreed to scheduled visits by Japanese families who sought to visit the graves of their ancestors, and two such visits have already taken place.
  • The Japanese have further proposed safe opportunities for fishing salmon and trout without using prohibited driftnet methodology and cooperation in disaster prevention.
  • These may seem like small steps, but underlying them is a serious purpose: to build trust. Summits and foreign ministers’ meetings have become commonplace.
Why are they getting closer to setting aside past issues?
  • Although Russia has for long been a hypothetical enemy of Japan, Mr. Abe’s wish to engage with Russia stems from
* The rapid rise of China, which spends three times more on defence than Japan,
* The perceived threat from North Korea, which recently fired two ballistic missiles over Japan as a taunt to the U.S.
* Russia is now seen in Japan as the lesser enemy, and improving relations with Moscow might drive a wedge in the growing quasi-alliance between Russia and China, a break-up desired by the U.S.-led Western alliance.
  • Tokyo notes that the Russian Far East is endowed with plentiful natural resources that need investments but are hampered by a small population, whereas China has 100 million citizens along that shared land border.
* Japan has no territorial or demographic ambitions in Russia other than the Kuriles and can transform the vast contiguous areas of Russia.

Lessons that can be drawn by India:
  • Kashmir is essentially a territorial dispute of almost equal vintage as the Kuriles. Traditionally hostile neighbors can identify common interests and explore unorthodox avenues along which to proceed in search of innovative solutions to apparently insoluble disputes.
  • This requires strong leadership and a bold imagination. Neither India nor Pakistan lacks either attribute.
  • If both sides keep waiting for the most auspicious time to make the first move, it will never come about. Therefore, the political leadership has to take bold steps to engage and find a settlement for the benefit and peace in the region of Kashmir.

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