Escalating tensions between the Western alliance and Russia have revived the long political dispute between Moscow and Tokyo, a NATO ally, on the islands in the Pacific.
The Ukraine conflict has increased tensions between NATO and Russia not only across Eastern Europe, but also in the Pacific region, where the US-led Western alliance and its Asian allies like Japan face an assertive China and Russia.
Fearing China’s regional ambitions, Japan has further entrenched its ties with NATO, which wants to limit both China’s and Russia’s reach across the globe, including in the Pacific region. Under US protection and backing, Japan has become more vocal on regional issues and its Kuril Islands dispute with Russia is gaining traction.
In March, as the Russian offensive raged across Ukraine, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi revived Tokyo’s claims on the southern Kurils, describing the region, which it refers to as its Northern Territories, as an “integral part” of the Pacific state.
In response to Japan’s hardening stance, Russia, which has controlled the entire Kuril island chain, including its southern portion, since 1945, announced its withdrawal from peace talks with Japan addressing the Kuril Islands dispute.
Russia even conducted military drills in the disputed region in late March in a show of force against both Japan and the Western Bloc as the country’s foreign ministry blamed the US for “keeping Japan’s artificial territorial claims against Russia afloat in order to keep both countries from full-scale and long-term cooperation.”
What is the dispute about?
The Kuril Islands is the name of an island chain located between Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and Japan, a country in the Pacific comprising thousands of islands. The Kuril island chain has been a disputed territory between Russia and Japan since at least the mid-19th century.
Russia’s expansion to the Far East, which has continued, gradually, since the 17th century, brought Moscow into contact with certain Pacific nations, including Japan, with which Moscow has had tense relations and continuing disputes since the late 19th century until now.
Among various Pacific disputes, the Kuril Islands dispute has emerged as one of the main results of the ongoing territorial competition between Russia and Japan. From the 19th century until now, the Kuril Islands chain — or some parts of it, at least — have, at different points, changed hands between Russia and Japan, making it one of the most long- standing conflicts in the Pacific.
Because the island chain is located in a strategic region close to both Japan and Russian territories, Moscow sees its presence in the Kuril Islands as an effective and crucial measure in keeping US power in the Pacific in check.
The Kuril Islands dispute involves several challenging questions, including which specific islands should be considered official parts of the Kulin Islands and which islands should be under Russian or Japanese control.
Which islands are the Kulin Islands?
The definition of the borders of the Kulin Islands is important because Russia currently claims sovereignty over the entire island chain, which includes 18 islands.
On the other hand, Japan believes that four southernmost islands of the chain — Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese), Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai Islands close to the Japanese territory — are not part of the Kulin Islands. As such, they argue they should not be under Russian control.
The current Kulin Islands dispute refers mainly to the status of these four islands because Japan does not claim any sovereignty over the rest of the islands in the chain. Russia, however, maintains that the Kulin Islands comprise all the islands in the chain, including the four southernmost ones.
Since the mid-19th century, there have been dozens of back-and-forth discussions, agreements and disagreements between the two Pacific nations on the status of the islands.
While some uncertainty over which islands constitute the Kulin Islands has existed for decades, both Japan and Russia controlled the entire island chain at different times, indicating that both states considered the entire set of islands as the Kulin Islands at certain points.
A window of opportunity to address the conflict emerged during the 1956 peace talks between Moscow and Tokyo, which resulted in the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration, ending the countries’ formal state of war and promising a peace treaty.
During the 1956 talks, Moscow offered Tokyo the two smaller islands, Shikotan and Habomai Islands, which are very close to Japanese territory, in return for Japan renouncing all claims to the two bigger islands. While Japan appeared, at the time, to accept the Soviet proposal to end the dispute, Tokyo later insisted, under US pressure, that it did not agree to cede the sovereignty of the two bigger islands to Moscow, according to Gregory Clark, a political analyst.
The US sees Soviet, and now Russian, control over the Kurils as an invasion. But during WWII, when the US fought Japan, Washington was also instrumental in Moscow’s takeover of the whole disputed island chain, backing the communist state’s “invasion.” But since Japan became a US ally, Washington has supported Tokyo versus Moscow, pressuring the island nation not “to transfer sovereignty over such territories.”
The history of the dispute
The legal territorial definition of the Kuril Islands has a long complicated history, as does the question of ownership and entitlement.
From 1855, when the two Pacific nations established their first official ties, to 1875, when the Treaty of Saint Petersburg was signed between Japan and Russia, the Kulin Islands were divided between the two countries.
"Henceforth the borders between Russia and Japan will pass between the islands Iturup (Etorofu) and Urup (Uruppu). The whole island of Iturup belongs to Japan and the whole island Urup and the other Kuril Islands to the north constitute possessions of Russia," said the Treaty of Shimoda, which was signed between the two states in 1855.
But in 1875, with the Treaty of Saint Petersburg, Russia left the entire region of the Kulin Islands to Japan; in exchange, it took ownership over the large island of Sakhalin, which extends from north to south, adjacent to the Russian mainland in the Pacific, near the northern part of Japan.
While the treaty put the islands under complete Japanese control, translation discrepancies between different official texts created an ambiguity over which islands should be considered as part of the Kulin Islands.
All these islands have been under Russian control since 1945 after the former Soviet Union seized the disputed region during WWII. Two years later, the islands’ native Japanese inhabitants were expelled from their homes by Soviet forces.
While Russia and Japan did not engage in direct combat with each other during WWII, both states aligned with opposite alliances. Japan allied with Nazi Germany, while the Soviets fought alongside the US, the UK and France against Berlin.
Despite the fact that the warring parties of WWII — Germany, Italy and the Allied powers — signed peace treaties at the end of the war, Japan and the Soviets (and later Russia) have never signed a peace agreement to officially end their hostilities and design their post-war path.
“It’s extremely regrettable that 76 years after the war, the issue of the Northern Territories hasn’t been resolved and a peace treaty between Japan and Russia hasn’t been agreed upon,” said Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida prior to Russia’s Ukraine offensive in February.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also equally expressed regret about the political deadlock on the Kuril Islands. “We believe that the absence of a peace treaty in our relations is absurd,” he said last year.
While both sides expressed their dissatisfaction over the failure to address the Kulin Islands dispute, their peace talks have not moved to a level in which the two countries can agree on a concrete political resolution.
With the recent escalations in Ukraine, it would be even more difficult for the two countries to find common ground in the Kuril Islands conflict as Japan has sided with Kiev, in opposition to Moscow.