Members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces' airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka Base. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces' airborne troops stand at attention during the annual SDF ceremony at Asaka Base in a file photo. Photo: Agencies

Japan’s sovereignty disputes with Russia (Southern Kurils/Northern Territories), the Koreas (Dok-do/Takeshima) and China (Diaoyutai/Senkakus) are resurfacing and rising to the fore.

Their rekindling is a reflection of Japan’s newfound assertiveness – and the backing of this posture by the US for its own purposes. Worse, they have become caught up in big-power politics involving the interests of Russia, China, Japan and the US.

In particular, relations between China and Japan are already strained by Tokyo’s increasingly robust diplomatic and material support for the US effort to contain China. Indeed, Japan is approaching China’s red lines.

Yasuhide Nakayama, Japan’s state minister for defense, said in June, “We have to protect … Taiwan as a democratic country.” Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso has said a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would threaten Japan’s survival, so Japan and the US must defend Taiwan together.

Japan is also becoming more aggressive vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea. In its largest show of force in the region since World War II, in June 2019 it sent its largest naval vessel, the helicopter carrier Izumo, into the South China Sea to exercise with the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike force.

China has stated that Japan’s more assertive behavior “is a blatant denial of the fruits of victory of the world’s anti-fascist war and a severe challenge of postwar international order.” 

In July, Japan joined the US in publicly calling on China to abide by the international arbitration ruling against it on the South China Sea.

China sees Japan as continuing its history of arrogance and aggression by being part of a US-led “China containment” strategy. 

Japanese Defense Minister Taro Aso is the latest top-level politician to lend rhetorical support for Taiwan. Photo: Handout / AFP via Japan Exchange Group

Indeed, regarding the latest visit of Japanese cabinet ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Sunday, “It seriously harms the feelings of people of affected Asian countries, including China, and once again reflects Japan’s wrong attitude towards its own history of aggression.”

Tokyo’s assertiveness reminds Russia, the Koreas and China of Japan’s cultural arrogance, uncontrolled nationalism and militarism that led to the Pacific War in the first place. A military role in the region for what Beijing perceives as its unrepentant former conqueror could strengthen the hand of militarists in China and undercut those who favor a “softer” approach.

Whatever Machiavellian intent the US may have in supporting Japan’s assertiveness, it may backfire.

This is the context of the resurfacing of the territorial disputes.

The disputes are linked in history, principle and precedence, and are animated by nationalism. They all stem from “unfinished business” left over from the terms of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II and are thus infused with memories of Japan’s inhumane behavior before and during the war.

Two of the disputed areas are strategic: the Northern Territories for monitoring and potentially targeting Russian warship and submarine transits between Vladivostok and the Pacific Ocean, and the Senkakus for monitoring and potentially targeting enemy vessels using the nearby sea lanes. This is probably what drives US interest in these disputes.

Northern Territories/Southern Kurils

At the end of the war, Soviet troops occupied the Northern Territories, and ever since Japan has demanded that they be returned. Russia has declined. But in the early 1950s, the Soviet Union offered to return the two smaller islands if Japan would renounce its claims to the two larger ones. Under pressure from the US, Japan refused.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty ending the Allies’ war with Japan states that Tokyo must give up “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands.” But Japan claims that the Northern Territories are not a part of the Kuril Islands. Russia thinks Japan has reneged on its obligations relating to its 1945 surrender. This issue has prevented the two from signing a peace treaty formally ending the war.

A recent uptick in Russian aircraft probes over its disputed area with Japan has alarmed Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. In June, Japan’s Air SDF fighter jets were scrambled a record 35 times. Japan has said it “cannot accept” the probes because they are taking place on and over its territory. 

A map of the Kuril Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The US has declared that a military provocation by China in the Senkakus would invoke the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty. Russia may wonder if the US reaction to such a provocation in the Northern Territories would engender the same reaction. Indeed, some speculate that Russia is testing the reactions of the US.

Domestic politics may also be at play. Russian elections are scheduled for September and President Vladimir Putin’s party has been losing some support in the Far East. So perhaps it hoped to rally the populace behind the party by waving the nationalist flag.

In late July, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited one of the disputed islands and said the government was considering setting up a special economic zone on the islands. After Japan protested Mishustin’s visit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “It is China’s consistent belief that the outcomes of the victorious anti-fascist war should be earnestly respected and upheld.”

This was a change in China’s position on this particular issue. China may now be using this dispute as leverage in its own dispute with Japan over the Senkakus, which the Chinese call Diaoyutai.

The Senkakus/Diaoyutai

The Senkaku Islands were controlled by Japan from the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895 to the end of World War II. The US administered them from 1945 to 1972, when it returned their administration to Japan.

But China and Taiwan claim that Japan forcibly seized them and imposed an unequal treaty, and thus they should be returned like the rest of Japan‘s Imperial conquests that were returned in 1945.

They argue that the Potsdam Declaration required that Japan relinquish control of all islands except for “the islands of Honshū, Hokkaidō, Kyūshū, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine,” and that this means control of the islands should have passed to them.

Again there is a sense in China that Japan – with the connivance of the US – has reneged on it obligations. The US is actually neutral on the sovereignty question, insisting only that the Senkakus are now administered by Japan, and thus fall under the obligations in the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty.

China has recently stepped up coast guard and air force penetrations of Japan’s claimed territorial waters around the Senkakus. Japan warns that China is trying to change the status quo by force. But in September 2012, Japan itself changed the status quo by nationalizing three of the privately held islands, prompting large-scale citizen protests in China. 

China’s Haijing 2502 patrol vessel sails into waters near the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea on November 6, 2016. China also claims the islands, which it refers to as Diaoyu. Photo: AFP / Japan Coast Guard

Perhaps in response, in November 2013, China declared an “Air Defense Identification Zone” that includes the airspace over the Senkakus. Now Japan’s coast guard has banned 80 specific Chinese fishing boats from its claimed territorial waters around the Senkakus.

This comes just as China’s annual unilateral fishing ban in the area is ending and not long after Beijing passed a new law authorizing its coast guard to use force to defend China’s sovereignty.

Japan has even urged Australia to join it in military exercises aimed at the “China threat” in the East China Sea.

This sets the stage for confrontation.

Takeshima/Dok-do

The Dok-do/Takeshima dispute has long been a thorn in Korea-Japan relations and flares up from time to time. Japan annexed the rocks from Korea in 1905. It went on to occupy all of Korea in 1910.

South Korea gained control of the rocks in 1954. But successive Japanese governments have claimed that they are Japanese territory. For Koreans, Japan’s claim to the rocks amounts to a denial of its colonization and brutal mistreatment of the Korean people and is thus a very sensitive issue.

The issues are similar in that in all of them one party declares that there is no dispute. That is Japan’s position on the Senkakus and South Korea’s position on Dok-do. Russia takes the same position on the Southern Kurils.

Since one party in each dispute is so deeply dug in, a compromise by Japan on one could set a precedent. That is why these disputes are likely to fester for at least another generation. In sum, these disputes are a multiparty stalemate, unless the game board or the rules expand. But Japan’s new assertiveness raises the stakes in the game.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.