Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On the foolishness of Japan's claim to the Kuril Islands

Yet again, the Kuril Islands are bedevilling Russo-Japanese relations.

Japan protested Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to a disputed island chain, at a time when the Japanese government is locked in a row with China over a separate territorial claim.

Medvedev today visited Kunashir, one of four islands called the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. During a three-hour trip, the first by a Russian leader to the islands, he toured a geothermal power plant and a newly built kindergarten. The island is known as Kunashiri in Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan today in parliament called Medvedev’s trip “very regrettable.” Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara summoned Russian Ambassador Mikhail Bely to object, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The visit “is incompatible with our basic stance and hurts the feelings of the Japanese people,” Maehara said during a 20- minute meeting with the Russian envoy, according to the statement. Bely said Medvedev’s trip, which came as he returned from a regional summit in Hanoi, was a domestic matter, and that a worsening of Japan-Russian ties would benefit neither country.

The trip, a deliberate “provocation” toward Japan, aims to bolster Russia’s prestige at a time when Russian leaders are taking a more accommodating stance toward the U.S. and Europe, said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Summoning ambassadors to protest this--Japan summoning Russia's, then Russia's summoning Japan's--isn't a good sign.

The various claims made by Russia and Japan strike me as somewhat legalistic, Japan's rather more than Russia's. Is claiming that Russian rule over the Kuril islands should be invalid because the Soviet invasion of Japanese territory in 1945 was in violation of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact really a good idea? The Russian arguments, honestly, make more sense to me. Using force to settle boundaries between the former Axis powers and their neighbours was accepted elsewhere in the theatres of the Second World War, and in many cases these borders have remained, undisputed and uncontroversial, even after the Cold War ended. Italy hasn't tried to reclaim western Slovenia and the Istrian peninsula, say, or Germany Silesia, or even--pardon the pairing--Finland the Karelian isthmus. Whatever the maritime boundaries between Russia and Japan on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk were before 1945, after 1945 they changed. Japan might almost as well demand the Karafuto--the southern half of Sakhalin island, an entire prefecture in itself--also lost to the Soviet invasion.

Japan continued claim to that unfortunate archipelago isn't a good expenditure of its energies. Leaving aside the small size and economic irrelevance of the islands, and the fact that Japan's continued claims have done nothing to help that country's relationship with Russia (the trend has been for the Russian population to increasingly oppose returning the Kurils, or even the southernmost islands of said), the islands would be a money sink. It wouldn't be as relatively expensive as, say, the costs to Germany of an annexation of Kaliningrad (never mind of the DDR into the Federal Republic), but why spend the money needlessly when the Japanese government is already hugely in debt? There isn't even a large number of deportees, even of the second and third generations; less than twenty thousand people lived on the four disputed islands in 1945. Continuing to dispute the Kurils has hugely disproportionate costs.

There's also irony. With the expected amount of snark, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo remarked that Japan's involved in disputes with other countries on the Asian continents on some islands lying between Japan and the Asian mainland. The author even suggests that Japan is being hypocritical, denying the relevance of a historically grounded Korean claim to that island.

Korean government officials say that a considerable number of Japanese politicians and senior government officials believe that China and Russia have weakly substantiated claims to the Senkaku Islands and the Northern Territories, but the Korean government appears to have a historical basis to lay claim to Dokdo.

From Japan's perspective, it controls the Senkaku Islands, so they are not disputed territory. The Kuril Islands are under Russian control, but it believes they clearly belong to Japan from a historical perspective and must be returned. But the Dokdo islets are said to be "illegally occupied" by Korea and must first of all be established in international eyes as disputed territory. This is why Japan continues to make provocative comments about the Korean islets.

Without judging the merits of Japan's other maritime disputes, engaging in disputes over maritime boundaries on any number of conflicting grounds with all of Japan's neighbours isn't smart. Just saying.
Tags: china, former soviet union, geopolitics, islands, japan, korea, nationalism, second world war, south korea, war
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