Rising Tensions Over the Kurile Islands

While the Middle East implodes, business continues as usual in East Asia.  

That is, disputes over small islands continue to unsettle the region’s international relations.  The current islands in the spotlight are the remote, wind-blown and chilly Kurile Islands, north of Japan’s Hokkaido and south of Russia’s Sakhalin (made famous by Chekhov in his descriptions of its prisons).  The islands present a prize for nationalists in Tokyo and Moscow, and perhaps for the fishing communities living there. For outsiders, they can be a baffling source of disagreement.  

The latest eruption of this dispute started in November last year, after a visit by President Medvedev, a move he followed up in February 2011 with calls for increased military deployments to the islands.  A range of other actions, though, have charged the atmosphere.  One is a report that Chinese and South Korean companies may cooperate on ventures to develop the Kuriles, an assertion denied by the Chinese.  Another is that Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, has announced plans to “virtually visit” the islands, by flying near them.  The row also worsened when Washington issued a statement outlining its long standing position of support for Japanese claims to the islands. In return, the US ambassador in Moscow received a summons for a dressing down.  

East Asia is full of the unfinished business of the Second World War, of which the Kuriles are simply one example.  

Stalin’s Red Army occupied the islands in the twilight of the Second World War and Moscow has hung onto them tenaciously ever since.  When Japan signed the San Francisco Treaty in 1951 ending the War in the Pacific, it renounced claims to the Kuriles, but the Cold War had by then set in and Moscow refused to participate in the accord.  Furthermore, Japanese advocates now claim that at the time Tokyo did not accept that certain islands fell within the Kuriles chain (the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai rocks in particular). This assertion is subject to dispute by Russian and western experts, but is strongly held in Tokyo.  To further muddy the issue, the US Senate made clear in the treaty ratification process that the US did not accept Soviet sovereignty over the disputed islands.  Washington has since maintained this stance.  

In 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union entered into discussions to formalise a by then overdue peace treaty.  Negotiations included resolution of the Kurile issue, with Moscow handing control of just Shikotan and the Habomais rocks to Tokyo.  Japan was ready to accept an agreement, but the US intervened and pressed Tokyo not to sign a formal peace.  As such, the talks spawned not a treaty but a Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration, which ended the bilateral state of war but did not resolve the Kuriles dispute.  Indeed, the Joint Declaration stated explicitly that such resolution should only occur in a formal peace treaty.  

The cold war climate and fears in Tokyo and Washington about the Soviet Union’s naval capacity in the Pacific -- particularly after the victory of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1975 left Cam Ranh Bay available to the Soviet fleet -- made resolution of the issue a non-starter until after 1991.  The issue, though, was a low priority through the 1990s and most of the following decade.  In 2006, then President Putin offered Japan Shikotan and the Habomais in exchange for renunciation of its claims to the other islands – in essence the same deal as in 1956 – but the offer came to naught.  The two governments agreed in 2008 to set aside the issue for future generations to resolve (lucky them).  The climate had already started to worsen, though, not least when Japan published guidelines for teachers emphasising its sovereignty over the islands.  Then in 2010, Moscow seemingly decided to raise the temperature with Medvedev’s visit, turning a low level dispute into cause for recalling the Japanese ambassador to Moscow.  Tensions continue to rise.

The immediate question, though, is this: what is it that makes this minor island dispute significant?  

Perhaps the easiest and most obvious assertion is that East Asia can only coalesce effectively after these niggling details are settled.  After all, the European Union only managed to forge unity after disputes such as those over Alsace and Lorraine or Poland found resolution in the realpolitik of the post war period.  And it is arguable that closer political integration is just what Asia in general, and North East Asia in particular (which suffers a lack of effective regional institutions), needs.  After all, picking at the scabs of history is unhealthy. Far better to heal cleanly and prosper.

The second reason is perhaps more intriguing, though.  The suggestion that Chinese companies may play a role in the Kuriles hints at the growing links between Moscow and Beijing, prompting analysts to ask whether an “Axis of Authoritarianism” may come to present a unified front against the US and its allies in East Asia.  

The bilateral relationship between China and Russia is a fascinating, if paradoxical, part of the international relations of East Asia.  The relationship is old – China’s first formal treaty was with Russia in 1689.  It's also complex: Russia played a predatory role in China in the nineteenth century, extracting concessions that it retained until Khruschev gave them up in the 1950s (Stalin cynically held onto Russian rights notwithstanding an alliance signed in 1950 and sealed with blood in Korea).  Bilateral relations, though, worsened after Khruschev’s 1956 Secret Speech denouncing Stalin, and in time the Sino-Soviet split spiraled into military conflict, a development which eased the way for Nixon’s visit to China.  Relations only normalised after 1989. 

Today, much drives the two countries together.  The two sprawling states share authoritarian political cultures, and have taken steps to move beyond their Cold War era enmity, for instance by resolving the Amur River border dispute which led to bloodletting in 1969.  They cooperate in Central Asia, in part under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which some analysts (perhaps inappropriately) characterise as an effort to forge a condominium in the region – and one which excludes the US.  Both countries have disputes with neighbouring Japan and oppose US dominance of the international system.  Bilateral trade is also booming, reaching about US$50 billion in 2010, and will increase as Russia expands its delivery of oil and gas products to the energy hungry Chinese market.   Russia is also perceived as an honest broker in its dealings with North Korea -- a stance which has won it plaudits in Beijing -- and has sold piles of arms to China.  Closer ties may also receive a fillip from the promotion of Xi Jingping to the presidency and the post of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012.  Xi studied in Russia, and so holds a foreign imprint different from Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, who both lived in Paris and looked more to the West.  Furthermore, there is the issue of family. Xi’s father, Zhongxun was closely associated with the “Moscow arm” of the CCP, and thus suffered in the purges against Gao Gang in the 1950s and again during the Cultural Revolution.  

Strong bilateral ties serve both states’ national interests.  China gets its oil, Russia its funds.  The strategic benefits are also significant, and it is in this context that rising tensions over the Kuriles are important.  A worsening of the dispute may drive China and Russia closer together.  Indeed, cooperating on the Kuriles would help Moscow and Beijing put pressure on Japan, perhaps by forcing Tokyo to reassess the decision late last year to reorient its defence posture away from its north (Russia) to its south (China).  For China, such a move would suit its more assertive Chinese policy of recent months in the western Pacific.  For the Russian part, the closer relationship would appeal to Russia’s (or Putin’s) vanity by enhancing its role as a great power; closer bilateral ties could make it easier to prevent US initiatives in regions such as Central Asia, or on issues such as Iran or North Korea.   

But the relationship may prove fragile in the longer term.  First of all, many Chinese nationalists consider Russia’s Primorsky Krai to be part of China, since its cession to the Russian Empire came about under two of the “unequal treaties”, those of Aigun in 1858 and Peking in 1860.  The latter reopened the Aigun settlement in the aftermath of the Franco-British intervention in China in the Second Opium War, an episode which saw Lord Elgin’s expedition to Beijing and the burning of the Summer Palace.  Hardly an easy negotiating environment for imperial China and one which now forms part of the country’s “Century of Humiliation”.  This perception may prove hard to manage, because nationalism has been difficult to control since the government implemented a patriotic education campaign in the 1990s in order to bolster CCP legitimacy after the Tiananmen Square episode.  The trade figures also hide a severe imbalance, which renders Russia an exporter of timber, oil and other unfinished commodities and an importer of finished Chinese manufactures.  A further source of tension is the perception (true or otherwise) of Chinese immigration into the Russian Far East; after all, more than 80 million Chinese (and growing) live opposite fewer than 6 million Russians (and falling).  The fear of demographic conquest arises from time to time in Moscow.  Accordingly, strategic considerations may in time drive the two countries apart, not least if Russia comes to fear its increasing dependence on China.

In the interim, though, tensions over the Kuriles remain high, and will help Russia and China find cause to collaborate.  The dispute is unlikely to end in conflict, but observers should be cautious in dismissing the Kurile Islands dispute as a minor one over remote rocks.  After all, as people from Argentina or Britain could confirm, wind-swept, desolate islands have funny ways of getting people’s blood up -- chilly and wind swept, but ours...