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【#557】Japan Has No Choice but to Assert Ground for Seeking Return of 4 Russian-held Islands

Ryousuke Endou / 2018.11.22 (Thu)

November 19, 2018

     Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their talks on November 14 agreed to accelerate their countries’ negotiations on a peace treaty based on a Japan-Soviet joint communique signed in 1956. Abe thus indicated an approach of seeking the return of Shikotan and Habomai islands among the four Russian-held, Japanese-claimed northern islands as specified in the communique. However, the Abe approach is precarious from the viewpoint of Japan’s traditional approach on the long-standing territorial dispute with Russia or a negotiation tactic. Indications are that even the return of the two islands is not necessarily likely.

Big step-back from the negotiations
     The Japan-Soviet communique says that the Soviet Union would hand Shikotan and Habomai over to Japan after signing a bilateral peace treaty to end World War II hostilities. The Abe approach might have been designed to secure the return of the two islands and pursue an additional gain, which could be an agreement to continue negotiations on the two remaining Russian-held islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri or realize Japanese citizens’ free travelling to and Japan-Russia joint economic operations on the two islands.
     However, the four northern islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai are Japan’s inherent territory that has been illegally occupied by the Russians since the final days of World War II. The Japan-Soviet communique ended the state of war and recovered the bilateral diplomatic relationship. Since then, Japan has maintained the national policy of seeking the return of the four islands. If Japan changes the policy to come back to the joint communique signed more than 60 years ago and nullify negotiations accumulated since then, negotiations may go backward.
     A bilateral peace treaty usually specifies borderlines and territories to end a bilateral war. An approach of seeking to win the return of the two islands first and negotiate on the remaining two islands after signing a peace treaty is logically contradictory. The Putin administration may not accept such approach.

Abe approach caters to Russia, even leaving Shikotan and Habomai return precarious
     President Putin has promptly thrown a bucket of cold water on Japan. At a press conference on November 15, Putin said the Japan-Soviet communique failed to specify any country that has the sovereignty over Shikotan and Habomai planned under the communique to be handed over to Japan, indicating that the sovereignty over Shikotan and Habomai would still be subject to negotiations.
     Russia has traditionally claimed that the Japan-Soviet communique is the only document ratified by the two countries and should be given special consideration. As Japan caters to the Russian claim, Russia takes advantage of such Japanese approach to become more confident.
     I would like to touch on the three Baltic countries that now belong to the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The three countries became independent from the then Russian Empire in 1918 and were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 under a secret protocol for the German-Soviet nonaggression treaty. The strongest ground for the Baltic countries’ recovery of their independence in 1991 was that the secret protocol ignoring the interested states was invalid.
     The Yalta agreement that Russia has claimed as the ground for holding the northern islands was also a secret accord. Japan should regally assert to the international community that it has the reasonable ground for seeking the return of the four islands.

Ryosuke Endo is an editorial writer and a former Moscow bureau chief of The Sankei Shimbun newspaper.