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U.S. base presence may affect Japan-Russia island talks

Tokyo, Nov. 29 (Jiji Press)–Negotiations between Japan and Russia over their decades-old territorial dispute are expected to be affected by a possible U.S. military presence on any of disputed islands if they are returned to Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently agreed to use the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration as the basis of bilateral negotiations on concluding a World War II peace treaty. The declaration calls for the handover to Japan of Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets, the smaller two of four Russian-held northwestern Pacific islands, after the conclusion of a peace treaty.

But a Russian presidential spokesman was quick to note that the latest agreement does not mean the automatic transfer of the two islands to Japan, signaling diplomatic maneuvering by Putin.

According to Japanese government sources, Russia prioritizes a commitment from Japan not to allow any U.S. military base to be constructed on either of the two islands after the handover.

The four islands, located off Hokkaido, northernmost Japan, were seized from Japan by Soviet troops in the closing days of the war. The dispute over them has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a peace treaty to put a formal end to their wartime hostilities.

Known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the southern Kurils in Russia, the islands are of major importance to Russia in terms of national security.

The Sea of Okhotsk harbors Borei-class nuclear-powered submarines equipped with nuclear missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland, according to sources in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Due to the presence of the submarines, the sea area offers a so-called second strike capability of responding to a first strike from the United States.

There is a base for Borei-class submarines in the Kamchatka Peninsula, while Vladivostok hosts a base for Russian navy vessels and a facility for repairing nuclear-powered submarines.

For Russia, the Kuril Islands and the four disputed islands constitute a strategic area through which submarines and other ships can have free access to the Pacific Ocean. They also make up a defense line that keeps any other country at bay.

On Kunashiri and Etorofu, the larger two of the Russian-held islands, surface-to-ship missiles that can hit the eastern part of Hokkaido are deployed.

According to Japan’s Defense Ministry and other sources, Camp Chitose is the only base in Hokkaido managed by the U.S. military under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. The SDF share most of the base site in Chitose.

Japan has relied on the Ground SDF and the Air SDF for the defense of the nation’s northernmost island, assuming landing and inroads by the former Soviet Union and its air force threats during the Cold War era.

“The U.S. military could deploy sonar to detect Russian nuclear submarines on the seafloor off Shikotan, near the Kunashiri Channel, if it were to use the two islands (that may be handed over to Japan) for military purposes,” a former SDF official said.

A U.S. base, if constructed near the key defense line, would be a major embarrassment for Putin and put him under heavy pressure from the Russian military.

Under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, the United States can set up military installations on Japanese territory on condition of Japan’s consent. If Tokyo pledges to Moscow that no U.S. base will be built on the two islands after their return to Japan, the islands would be an exception to the treaty.

The United States has reaffirmed its obligation under the security treaty to defend the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea because they are under Japanese administration, although they are also claimed by China.

Washington is believed certain to show reluctance if Tokyo seeks to make the Northern Territories an exception to the treaty while asking for a U.S. guarantee of protection for the Senkaku Islands.

If the United States ever agrees to such treatment for the northwestern Pacific islands, there is a risk of Washington dropping its commitment to the defense of the Senkaku Islands, analysts said.

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