The coast of Shikotan island, in Russia, on April 1, 2018. Shikotan is the largest island of the Lesser Kuril Chain, part of the Sakhalin region in Russia. Photo: AFP/Ekaterina Shtukina/Sputnik

The Russia-Japan territorial disputes dominated a meeting of the foreign ministers of the two countries, Toshimitsu Motegi and Sergey Lavrov, at Nagoya, Japan, last Friday on the sidelines of a Group of Twenty foreign ministers’ gathering.

Lavrov publicly threw cold water on the Japanese spin that Tokyo is engaged in “persistent talks” with Russia on a peace treaty bringing the two countries’ World War II hostility to a formal end.

Lavrov emphatically stated that any forward movement on a peace treaty would have to be within the ambit of the Russia-Japan 1956 joint declaration, which, as he put it, “clearly states that first Russia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty over all our lands, including those territories, are recognized, thus recognizing the results of World War II, and then everything else will possibly be discussed.”

In plain terms, according to Lavrov, Moscow may consider discussing a peace treaty only after Tokyo unequivocally recognizes Russian sovereignty over the Kuril Islands and territories that came under Russian control in the Far East during World War II.

Consistent Russian stance

Japan’s stance, on the contrary, can never converge on that point. Wouldn’t Moscow have known that already? Of course, Lavrov has only reiterated a consistent Russian stance.

Tokyo has been baiting Moscow with the proposition that a peace treaty will open the door to large-scale investments by Japanese companies for the development of the Russian Far East, which is a national priority for the Kremlin.

Tokyo has also been smart, projecting Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong but pragmatic statesman who is willing to make territorial concessions to attract Japanese investments.

But it takes two to tango, and up to a point, Moscow acquiesced with the Japanese enthusiasm that the two countries could be settling the Kuril issue – although making territorial concessions will be a highly emotive issue for Russian public opinion.

Moscow probably had hopes that a relaxed climate of relations might wean Tokyo away from the US strategic orbit – although the likelihood of Japan shaking off the US security umbrella will remain zero for the conceivable future.

At any rate, that tango has ended and realism prevails, with the regional security climate in the Far East visibly darkening with recent US cruise-missile tests and the Pentagon’s plan to deploy new missiles in Japan after the US exit from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Regional security link

Moscow is alert to the emergent threats to its strategic assets in the Russian Far East due to the US deployment. Importantly, Tokyo appears to be open to the proposed US missile deployments, which would further cement the US-Japan military alliance.

Unsurprisingly, Moscow has linked the regional security scenario to its territorial disputes with Japan. To quote Lavrov: “The military alliance with the US, of course, represents a problem when it comes to taking Russian-Japanese relations to another level. I will remind you that when the 1956 declaration was being coordinated, the USSR said back then that everything may be implemented, and this declaration may be fully implemented only in the context of discontinued US military presence on Japan’s territory.”

Lavrov added: “Japanese colleagues have received a list of Russia’s specific security concerns which emerge because of the increasing and strengthening Japanese-US military-political alliance. So our Japanese colleagues promised to react to those concerns. We will wait for their response and continue discussions.”

Lavrov also chose the G20 FMs’ forum at Nagoya to present the Russian concerns over the security climate in the Far East. He said: “As for the US behavior in the world, including in the Asia-Pacific region, in its relations with Japan, the United States does not hesitate to publicly acknowledge that Russia and China are the main threat to it and that all its military alliances with Japan, Australia and the Republic of Korea will be built proceeding from these threats and challenges.

“But, of course, we pointed out at a meeting with the Japanese foreign minister that this ran counter to the assurances, which Japan gives us that the Japanese-US military and political alliance is not aimed against the Russian Federation.”

Meanwhile, Russia is speeding up the construction of military dormitories on the southern Kuril Islands. A spokesman for Russia’s Eastern Military District had said that military personnel would settle into the dormitories on Iturup and Kunashir by the end of 2018 and that more dormitories would be built and commissioned in 2019.

The Eastern Military District, which was formed in 2010 under a presidential decree, is headquartered at Khabarovsk in Siberia near the Chinese border and is one of the four operational strategic commands of the Russian Armed Forces.

The new US missile deployments in the Far East are of common concern to Russia and China. In August, Russia and China sought a meeting of the UN Security Council over “statements by US officials on their plans to develop and deploy medium-range missiles.”

Last month, Putin disclosed that Moscow is helping China build a system to warn of ballistic missile launches. Putin said: “This is a very serious endeavor that will fundamentally and radically increase the defense capability of the People’s Republic of China.”

Since the Cold War, only the US and Russia have had such systems, which involve an array of ground-based radars and satellites. The systems allow for early spotting of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

China will find Lavrov’s remarks at Nagoya to be very reassuring. It is a safe bet that the Russia-Japan normalization will be an excruciatingly slow process, which in turn works fine for China in geopolitical terms. Lavrov also had a meeting with Wang Yi, Chinese councilor and foreign minister, at Nagoya.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan. This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times. 

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