Feb. 7 was Northern Territories Day. It was on this date in 1855 that a treaty between Russia and Japan went into effect setting the sea border between the two countries north of Etorofu Island — one in a chain of isles extending northeast from Hokkaido now held by Russia.
At the annual National Rally to Demand the Return of the Northern Territories held in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised to “make steady progress step by step” toward the eventual return of the disputed islands, highlighting his achievement thus far of carrying out 20 meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It has been 73 years since the then Soviet Union occupied the Northern Territories in the waning days of World War II. Two-thirds of the islands’ onetime inhabitants have passed away, and the average age of the some 6,000 remaining is 83. This issue must be resolved as soon as is humanly possible.
At the December 2016 Japan-Russia summit in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Abe and Putin temporarily set aside the issue of sovereignty over the territories. Instead, they opted to build mutual trust through bilateral economic development projects on the islands and agreed to take a “new approach” to reaching a formal peace treaty.
Even so, Putin showed a strong desire to finally put the Northern Territories issue to bed, and there were high expectations on the Japanese side that should the Russian president win his bid for re-election in March, there was a real chance of breaking the deadlock.
But the situation has undergone an enormous shift since then.
Donald Trump called for improving relations with Russia during his victorious U.S. presidential election campaign. In the little over a year since his January 2017 swearing in, however, U.S.-Russia relations have gone in the opposite direction.
The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) ordered by Trump and released on Feb. 2 also spends a lot of page space on measures to counter Russia. The report declares that, to counter possible Russian use of non-strategic nuclear arms in a local conflict, the United States will strengthen its nuclear war-fighting capability by developing atomic-tipped cruise missiles and low-yield nuclear warheads. It is likely that Russia will respond in kind.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military presence in Asia is growing as it deploys anti-missile systems and other assets to counter North Korean nuclear arms and ballistic missiles. Russia, too, is on alert, deciding to convert Etorofu Island airport into a mixed civilian-military facility — one of a number of moves to build up Russian military infrastructure in the Kurile Islands. In short, the Northern Territories’ military value to Moscow is growing.
That being the case, Russia is very unlikely to give the islands up. The environment for Japan-Russia negotiations is growing more difficult.
As a sign of the “new approach” to Japan-Russia relations, former Japanese Northern Territories residents flew to their erstwhile hometowns last year for the first time to visit family graves. Talks on joint economic development projects on the islands are also continuing. However, it is impossible to see how this line of progress will lead to a decisive breakthrough on the territorial sovereignty problem.
Perhaps it is time for Japan to reassess its entire approach to relations with Russia.