Henry Salem, JHU:
This year marks the 72nd anniversary of the end of World War II, and while nearly every legacy of the War has evaporated, there is one that endures: Russia and Japan are still at war. The countries did not sign a formal peace treaty, and thus technically remain at war. At the Yalta Conference of 1945, Joseph Stalin agreed to aid the United States in the Pacific War against Japan once Germany had surrendered and the war in Europe ended. In return, the Soviet Union famously gained entry to the United Nations with the power to veto, but this was not the only concessions given to the Soviet empire.
Stalin also took possession of the long-contested Southern Sakhalin island and the Kuril Island chain. These islands, located in the North Pacific Ocean, were taken by Japan after their overwhelming defeat of the Russian military forces in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Holding strategic and economic potential, these islands have been the focal point of Russo-Japanese relations for the last 70 years.
Japan believes that they have the legal, historical, and moral right to the islands. For Japan, accepting the loss of these islands would be politically disastrous. For Russia, returning these islands would tarnish their deep nationalistic pride and continue a tragic, humiliating history of territory loss.
In attempting to sign a peace treaty and a territory deal that appeases each country’s interests, it has been made clear that the two agreements need to be accomplished simultaneously. If a peace treaty is signed first, Russia will believe there to be no reason to return the islands. Likewise, if territorial concessions occur first, then Japan, Russia believes, will have no reason to sign a peace treaty.
While there have been many meetings, declarations, and empty agreements (namely the Joint Declaration of 1956 and the Tokyo Declaration of 1993) to settle the island dispute since the end of World War II, there have been no official deals made. Because there has been minimal progress in achieving a peace treaty and a territorial agreement, the foreign policy relations between the two countries has been distracted and unproductive. This has left Russia with control of the chain of Pacific islands much to Japan’s frustration.
In the closing weeks of October, Vladimir Putin met with Shinzō Abe about forming a joint resolution to cooperatively develop the islands to promote tourism. Despite these cooperative measures, Putin appears to have pushed aside any hope of a territory deal as Russia announced it has plans to build a naval base on the disputed island chain. While this does not bode well for future possibilities of Russia territory concessions, it is not devastating to Russo-Japanese relations altogether.
Japan is a nation devoid of natural resources, while Russia possesses more fuel and energy resources than any other nation on the planet. It is because of this complimentary relationship that the countries have enjoyed trade and robust foreign relations since the middle of the twentieth century.
A trade-based relationship is not good enough in today’s geopolitical climate. Russia, China, and North Korea are disrupting the power balance of the Far East and creating instability. Russia and Japan both acknowledge that stability in the region is beneficial to each of their respective goals. To make strides toward increased stability, Russia and Japan must make a definitive territorial agreement that suits the interests of both countries, and form a bilateral peace treaty. The formation of strong relations will allow the countries to cooperatively check the growing powers of China and North Korea. China’s aggression in the South China Sea and North Korea’s maniacal nuclear strategy pose threats to the region, and cannot be checked without a strong relationship between Russia and Japan.
Outside of the region, tensions are growing high between the United States and Russia especially as Robert Mueller’s investigation and indictments continue. Japan is the only Asian country that has a security dialogue mechanism with both the United States and Russia. Improving relations with Russia is therefore incredibly beneficial for Japan as they have the potential to act as a bridge between the United States and Russia. Having trilateral cooperation could prove successful in dealing with regional security issues as well as security concerns on a global stage.
It is in the best interest of Russia and Japan to settle their World War II legacy. For this to occur, Putin must realize that his current stance of extreme nationalism is only hurting his country’s position of power in the region. For Japan, settling the fallout of the Yalta Conference must mean regaining the lost territory. If these desires are met, Japan must realize their potential as a strategic partner. The balance of power in the Far East is rapidly shifting and Russia and Japan must settle their differences if they plan on holding any stake of power in the region.