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Japan in uncharted waters over territorial dispute with Russia

Economic incentives are unlikely to persuade Putin to hand over the Kuril Islands

The dispute over the Kuril Islands, which Japan regards as its Northern Territories, is unlikely to be resolved unless Tokyo changes course in its approach to Russia.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- How Russia has settled territorial disputes in the past may not provide clues as to how it will handle four tiny islands claimed by Japan but occupied by Russia since the end of World War II.

Along the Amur River, which separates China on its northeastern border from Russia, lies the Chinese city of Heihe, home to a memorial that conveys the history of the Russian invasion during the Qing dynasty, the country's last imperial era that ended in 1912.

The incursion resulted in vast tracts of land along the river being ceded to Russia upon signing of the Treaty of Aigun in 1858.

The treaty had been a thorn in the side of China, which viewed it as an indignity. Just as importantly, the treaty did not resolve territorial disputes over islands in the river, triggering Sino-Soviet border clashes in 1969. The issue was not solved until 2004, after Russia acknowledged the need to court friendly relations with a resurgent and economically powerful China, whose global influence was growing.

Russia displayed similar pragmatism -- driven again by economic considerations -- when settling a long-festering border dispute with Norway over the Barents Sea, compromising with its neighbor for the sake of accelerating development in the Arctic Ocean, a key point of Russian policy.

But economic incentives being dangled by Tokyo for the four islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories and in Russia as the Southern Kurils, are unlikely to persuade Russia to hand them over. Unlike the China and Norway disputes, for which there was no option but to resolve them for the sake of its own economic ambitions, Russia regards the Northern Territories in a different light.

During the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Sept. 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a bold appeal to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to finally sign the World War II peace treaty between the two countries without any prerequisites. Abe did not acknowledge the president, the Kurils being the main sticking point.

Abe has maintained that "economic cooperation with Russia will promote the mutual understanding that will resolve the territorial issue," eventually resulting in Moscow handing over the four islands.

But this thinking is delusional. The hard-line Putin has implied as much, saying that the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration stipulating that two of the islands -- Habomai and Shikotan -- be handed over to Japan "means that the territorial dispute does not exist for other islands." The president added that, even after return of the two islands, "the declaration does not state which country has sovereignty" over them.

Putin ignited Japanese hopes during a March 2012 news conference when he hinted that the two countries could settle the territorial issue through a compromise, but "because Japan afterward began demanding all four islands be returned, everything is back to square one." The president also issued a thinly veiled threat, saying that if Japan does not compromise, it may never gain control over any of the islands.

Now, even after Putin has brushed aside Japanese claims to the islands, government officials in Tokyo remain confident that through adroit diplomacy and by sweetening the pot with economic incentives, Japan will eventually regain the islands.

This unfounded optimism has historical precedent in the accomplishments of countryman Jutaro Komura, the diplomat who negotiated the Treaty of Portsmouth that formally ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The treaty was violently criticized by the public at the time but Komura was convinced that the terms -- though not entirely in Japan's favor -- would ultimately be for the best. History has seemed to have borne him out, as his efforts at ending the costly war are now viewed more favorably.

Of course, convictions like those held by Komura are necessary in any diplomat, but they must be based in reality. Tokyo's convictions as regards the Northern Territories seem to be merely hoped-for outcomes. And while some in the prime minister’s office remain optimistic over Abe's determined approach, it will take more than a rosy outlook to resolve such a thorny issue.

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