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INTERNATIONAL > Europe & Eurasia

Expert sees removing Russia’s security concern the key in Japan-Russia talks

Interviewed by Shinichi Akiyama

 

Shinji Hyodou, director of regional studies department, National Institute of Defense Studies

 

Russia will not relinquish Etorofu and Kunashiri Islands, as it deploys troops there. No optimism is warranted with regard to the handover of the Shikotan and Habomai Islands either, but Japan may be able to find common ground if it can remove or eliminate Russia’s security concerns.

 

The Sea of Okhotsk, which is to the north of the Northern Territories, has been an “area of great significance” to Russia since the time of the former Soviet Union, as Russia deploys there submarines capable of launching long-range, nuclear-payload ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. In recent years, the Sea of Okhotsk is increasing in strategic significance, as China is looking to develop it as an Arctic shipping route.

 

The Kuril Islands (Chishima Islands and the Northern Territories) remain militarily important as well. In 2016, the Russian military deployed advanced surface-to-ship missiles to Etorofu and Kunashiri, the southernmost islands of the Kurils. The waterway between Etorofu and Kunashiri also serves as a key transit route for Russia’s submarines. Plans are also underway to build new military bases in the northern part of the Kurils.  

 

On the other hand, Shikotan and Habomai are not significantly important from the militaristic perspective, as Russia only deploys border patrol troops there. Russia would probably call on Japan to confirm that U.S. troops will not be deployed to the islands, but Japan can’t deny the possibility of the deployment of U.S. forces there in the event of contingencies. Russia should also understand that it is difficult to secure Japan’s commitment in writing.

 

In peace treaty negotiations, attention will also be paid to whether or not Japan and Russia use language describing the other with hostility. If the U.S. withdraws from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and the pact becomes void, Russia may deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons that have Japan within range to its Far East. The inclusion of a clause that can serve as a brake on this to some extent could offer a significant advantage on the security front.

 

Russia could also benefit from signing a peace treaty and normalizing diplomatic ties with Japan, as this would give Russia more diplomatic cards to play in curbing China’s rise. Russia has long focused on economic ties and resource development with regards to cooperation with Japan, but since 2016, it has been citing in its official documents that it “will build a good relationship with Japan as a neighbor to ensure security in the Asia and Pacific region.”

 

There will be no future in territorial negotiations if national security is not discussed. I have the impression that Japan and Russia have been moving forward in their bilateral negotiations as they have also begun discussing the Northern Territories issue from the security perspective.

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