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Hiroshi Kimura

【#399】Abe’s Approach on Russia May End Up with Return of 2 Islands Alone

Hiroshi Kimura / 2016.09.29 (Thu)

September 26, 2016

     Japan-Russia relations may mark a watershed on December 15. This is because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may announce a joint statement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will visit Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi, to effectively give up on Japan’s long-held demand for Russia to return the four Russian-held northern islands.
     The statement will say Japan and Russia will continue negotiations on Kunashiri and Etorofu Islands even after Russia’s return of Habomai and Shikotan. However, the return of Habomai and Shikotan will come after the two countries conclude a peace treaty, as insisted by Russia. Abe will have to agree to the joint statement in the full knowledge of Russia’s position. Nevertheless, the Japanese government may try to explain to the domestic audience that Japan will never abandon its territorial right to the remaining two islands. This will be a deceptive explanation.

No reason to compromise with Russia in a hurry
     Putin salivates over a peace treaty with Japan. If the Russians achieve the peace treaty, they will never seriously negotiate on the remaining two islands. To make matters worse, Russia will try to obtain Japan’s semi-permanent commitment to its economic cooperation in the Russian Far East as well as its joint development of Kunashiri and Etorofu while pretending to continue the negotiation on these islands.
     If Japan had been willing to win the return of Habomai and Shikotan alone, it could have been achieved upon then Japanese Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1956. Hatoyama may have refrained from accepting the solution partly due to a request by then U.S. State Secretary John Foster Dulles. However, a major reason for declining to accept the return of the two islands alone was that Japan would lose the remaining two islands accounting for 93% of the total area for the four islands in exchange for winning the return of Habomai and Shikotan capturing only 7% of the total. Even in the face of urgent problems such as the Soviet Union’s mass detention of Japanese soldiers in Siberian labor camps and Japan’s pending accession to the United Nations, Japan refused to accept the return of the two islands alone.
     In 60 years since then, Japan has dramatically increased its national power. Russia now is eager to benefit from Japan’s economic power and science and technology. Particularly, the Putin government is so because it faces triple difficulties -- low crude oil prices, the ruble’s depreciation and sanctions by the Group of Seven industrial countries -- and cannot expect support from China plagued with economic deceleration. The time is coming but has yet to come for Japan to have a better chance to win more from Russia. Why is Abe willing to compromise with Russia in a hurry amid such situation?

A nation ruins with territories lost
     Some say Abe may be cozying up to Russia under his strategy to counter China. However, this approach is wrong. If Japan were to counter China’s expansionism, it would have no choice but to deepen close cooperation with the United States. Secondly, Russia and China are too tough to be divided through Japan’s diplomacy. Thirdly, if Japan accepts the return of the two islands alone, China and South Korea may interpret the acceptance as indicating it would be easy for them to deal with Japan over territorial problems.
     In closing, I quote words by German legal philosopher Rudolf von Jhering in “The Struggle for Law:”
     “From the nation which allowed itself to be deprived of one square mile of territory by its neighbor, unpunished, the rest also would be taken, until nothing remained to it to call its own, and it had ceased to exist as a state; and such a nation would deserve no better fate.”

Hiroshi Kimura is Professor Emeritus at Hokkaido University.