The Kuril Islands and An Evolving East Asia

The dispute between Russia and Japan over the southern Kuril Islands represents one of the longest territorial disputes in East Asia. In recent years, Japan and Russia have been attempting to resolve the dispute through bilateral cooperation and economic trade. What are the prospects for success however? What might the implications be for the wider region?


Russia and Japan have been in dispute over the Kuril Islands since their first established diplomatic contact in 1855. During that year, the Treaty of Shimoda was produced to assign possession of the northern Kuril Islands to Russia, with Japan receiving the four southernmost islands in exchange. Sakhalin was placed under joint control of both Russia and Japan until 1875; when the Treaty of St. Petersburg assigned the island to Russian possession in exchange for Japan receiving the entire Kuril Island Chain up to the Kamchatka Peninsula. However, the Russo - Japanese war of 1904 resulted in another territorial shift following Russia’s defeat. The Treaty of Portsmouth that concluded the war gave the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan. This situation was to change yet again following Japan's defeat in the Second World War. It was not until October 19, 1956 that Japan and the Soviet Union signed a Joint Declaration providing the end of the state of war and a restoration of diplomatic relations between the two nations. 

 Current Japanese Positions

In the past, Japan showed unwillingness to compromise on its official position on the territorial dispute. In July 2009, the Japanese parliament adopted a law stating that “the southern Kuril Islands are Japanese territory that has been unlawfully occupied by Russia.” This law has been consistently (if somewhat quietly) supported by the U.S government. After Russian President Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri in November 2010, Japan protested against the Russian government and temporarily recalled Russia’s ambassador. The Japanese people expressed their opinion during President Medvedev’s visit, where protesters outside the Russian Embassy in Tokyo desecrated the Russian flag.

More recently however, Japanese leaders have increasingly come to understand that Japan needs to establish a cooperative relationship with Russia on issues outside of the island’s territorial dispute. Japan has sought to gain access to Russia’s gas and oil exports from Siberia and Sakhalin. Japan needs to diversify its energy sources and views Russia as a necessary partner. In addition, an alliance between Moscow and Tokyo could help prevent China’s increasing influence throughout Asia. Both countries see China as a rising power that potentially needs to be balanced. This is not even to mention to ever-present challenge of North Korea. Japan and Russia have striven to improve their security relationship to address the changing security environment in Asia.

 Russian Positions

When Vladimir Putin came to power in August 1999, he strived to find a solution for the Kuril Island dispute by negotiating on the basis of the 1956 Declaration. Russia was willing to return some of the islands as part of the negotiated solution. However, the Japanese government rejected this. Japan stated that they were only willing to negotiate the exchange of all four islands to Japanese control. Japan was not willing to continue on negotiations that are based on a declaration that called for the exchange of the two of the four islands to Japan while allowing Russia to retain the other two.

During Vladimir Putin’s second Presidential Administration, the Russian government began a number of actions in order to strengthen Russia’s hold on the islands. One of its actions was the adoption of a federal program for the economic development of the region. The program raised 18 billion rubles for improvement on a variety of infrastructure development projects which were completed between 2007 and 2015.

In addition, the Russian government has also taken steps to strengthen the islands’ defenses, working toward more complete territorial security. Russia plans to modernize the equipment used by the 18th artillery division, which is based primarily on the Island of Kunashiri. In November 2016, Russia also deployed the Bal and Bastion mobile anti-ship missile systems to the Kuril Islands. Russian leaders see the Southern Kurils as a crucial part on strengthening their defense. The Southern Kurils control access to the Sea of Okhotsk; allowing the Russian Pacific Fleet easy access to the Pacific Ocean.

Actions Taken

Russia is not interested in granting concessions on the territorial dispute. However, just like Japan, Russia would like to further develop the bilateral relationship in other issues, particularly trade and joint development of Russian energy resources.

Japanese President Abe has held numerous meetings with Putin in order to find a resolution towards a peace treaty. In a statement by Japanese officials during a conference in Sochi, Tokyo appears to be hopeful that economic cooperation can build the trust that is required to resolve the long territorial dispute between both nations. This includes the development within energy sector and infrastructure projects throughout the Kuril Islands.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Japan in December 2016 has reflected progress in the sphere of joint economic operations between the two countries. The leaders agreed to establish joint economic activity on the islands in order to create favorable conditions for talks on a peace treaty between the countries. Russian Prime Minister Medvedev stated “We highly appreciate the new positive dynamics of our bilateral relations. But still the Kuril Islands, of course, remain the territory of the Russian Federation. So, in this case, it is the sovereign right,”. 

Prospects for Success?

There are still uncertainties clouding the negotiation of the island dispute between the two countries. Even though negotiations are based on the Joint Declaration of 1956, the treaty was signed in a different era and its articles cannot be implemented without taking into consideration the changes that have occurred throughout the years. If Russia decides to hand over the Southern Kuril Islands to Japan, it will be giving up immense natural resources and a strategic positioning; losing 210,000 sq. miles of water territory which are abundant in energy resources. This would also increase the possibility of military development by Japan and the US in the Southern Kuril Islands. However, it seems that the territorial dispute between Russia and Japan shows no signs of improvement despite bilateral progress between the two countries. Only time will tell how the long dispute will conclude between Russia and Japan.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons