During a press briefing at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum on 5 June, Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed his readiness to discuss a peace treaty with Japan. He highlighted that both Moscow and Tokyo share strategic interests and recent amendments to Russia’s constitution would not impede cooperation. Andrey Gubin specially for the East Asia Forum.
This is the first time that Putin has made such a statement publicly. His words were decidedly more conciliatory compared to his 2019 statement in Vladivostok. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has also expressed his willingness to develop ties with Russia and conclude a peace treaty to end Second World War hostilities between the two countries over the Kuril Islands (claimed by Japan as the Northern Territories).
But there are still critical misunderstandings between the parties.
During a phone call in January, US President Joe Biden reassured Suga that Washington would uphold its responsibilities under Article 5 of the 1960 Japan–US Security Treaty. He guaranteed that the United States would provide military assistance in the case of any ‘third party’ infringement of territories and waters that Washington recognises as under Japanese administration. This is generally understood to include the Senkaku Islands (claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands), but not the Kuril Islands.
The Japanese leadership explains its alliance with Washington by referencing the existential threat it faces from North Korea and from China. While still constrained by the Article 9 peace clause of its post-war Constitution, Japan has been gradually building up its military capabilities. But there are still those within Russia’s ruling elite who believe Washington is meddling and may support Tokyo’s territorial claims to the ‘Northern Territories’.
The possibility of US Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) deployment in Japan also matters in this regard. Japan’s alliance cooperation with the United States tends to be perceived in Russia within the context of its own confrontation with the United States — Washington is a powerful ally for Japan with the potential to change the status quo in Northeast Asia, something Moscow would like to avoid.
Analysts assume that Russia — affected by the experience of the Soviet Union during the Cold War — fears threshold military infrastructure being erected on the Northern Territories in event that Russia were to transfer some of the islands to Japan as part of a peace deal. The hypothetical deployment of Japanese or US radars, communication and surveillance facilities or missiles is an unpleasant and challenging issue for Moscow. Tokyo so far has not guaranteed the non-militarised status of any transferred islands if a peace treaty were signed while Moscow wants to show its muscle on the Kuril Islands chain.
Moscow tends to believe that if Habomai Islands and Shikotan Island are transferred to Japan, the strategic environment in the area will deteriorate. For instance, the Spanberg Strait is the only strait available for large ships to pass through safely. As Shikotan and the Habomais are located behind Kunashir Island and in line with Hokkaido, radars, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles there might grant Japan anti-access area denial abilities and limit Russian military might there.
The constant deployment of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s (GSDF) Northern Army in Hokkaido and the potential development of military facilities on Habomai and Shikotan would add value to the GSDF as well as increase US control of sea and air zones. A militarised Northern Territories would substantially complement a potential INF deployment in Japan, serving as a frontier for combined air and naval strike groups and a buffer against counter attacks.
Russia worries that US security guarantees could be expanded to include Japan’s claims to all four of the South Kuril Islands. The difference between the Northern Territories and the Senkaku Islands is that the latter are administered by Japan and thus covered by Article 5 alliance commitments, while the former are administered by Russia at present, and therefore not covered. The gap between ‘under administration’ and ‘under sovereignty’ is arguably subtle, which is why deviations in Tokyo’s position are sensitive for Moscow.
Some analysts argue that Russia is only interested in developing trade and investment cooperation. Japan has demonstrated a good aptitude for both and offers promising technological, logistic and infrastructure projects. Japan remains the 11th largest Russian trade partner. Japanese delegates are always welcomed to economic and investment forums in Vladivostok, Sochi and Saint Petersburg, and remain enthusiastic about developing cooperation.
Japanese academics propose normalising bilateral relations and adopting a peace treaty to ease tensions. Japan’s Ambassador to Moscow Toyohisa Kozuki has stated that the ‘Eight Points’ plan presented in 2016 at the Sochi Investment Forum is still relevant and promising. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs repeatedly imagines joint exploitation and economic activity on and around the Southern Kurils post-COVID-19.
Although there is still no progress on the Kuril Islands issue, the context is new. Rising US–Russia, US–China and Japan–China tensions are badly affecting the security environment in Northeast Asia. The next important event to assess the chances of signing a Russia–Japan peace treaty might be the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September which President Putin is expected to attend. Prime Minister Suga, or his predecessor Shinzo Abe as an unofficial representative, are likely to be invited.
The main requirement for change is political will and a desire on the part of both parties to go beyond cliches. It will be difficult for Tokyo to agree to a plan where Shikotan and Habomai won’t be transferred to Japan immediately after signing a peace treaty. Explaining this to Japanese voters is a complicated task. But the idea of guaranteeing the non-military use and joint development of the islands is not as utopist as it may appear.
Andrey Gubin is Associate Professor at the Oriental Studies Institute, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok.