Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 29 August 2023

China take Kuril Islands claimed by Japan

Source: By Julian Ryall: Deutsche Welle

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags on, Moscow is forced to funnel more and more of its military and economic resources to its western border. In Tokyoconservative voices are hinting the war could give Japan a chance to take control of what the Japanese call the Northern Territories. The strategically located islands are known as Kuril Islands in Russia, and were seized by Soviet forces in the closing days of WWII.

Moscow and Tokyo have held talks about the Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese)Kunashir (Kunashiri)Shikotan and Habomai Islets several times in the past, but failed to agree on a solution. This led to the two sides never formally signing a peace treaty to end the war.

Modern Japan has no plans of using military force to resolve the dispute. Still, there are those who hope that Vladimir Putin’s regime might weaken enough that changes could be made possible with diplomatic and economic incentives. But even if the Ukraine conflict escalates to the point that it actually jeopardises the Kremlin’s hold on the remote region, Russia’s ally China might have plans of its own.

Moscow pressured by sanctions and insubordination

Japan’s nationalist paper Sankei Shimbun recently published articles pointing to the war in Ukraine and the dramatic-but-short-lived Wagner rebellion as indicators of Russia’s decline.

According to the paper, the rebellion showed that “a small ground force equipped with tanks and anti-aircraft weapons” could prompt concerns about the defense of Moscow. If that was the case with the capital, doesn’t that mean that Russia’s frontiers are essentially standing defenseless?” the Sankei Shimbun asked. Japan must now prepare just in case we should see the collapse or breakup of Russia, the article said, according to the translation provided by Japan Forward website.

In a different article, the paper suggests that further military setbacks or civil unrest could topple Putin’s regime. That, in turn, could lead to a breakup of the country as remote federal republics seek independence from Moscow. In this scenario, Japan might be able to strike a deal with the new government that administers the disputed islands, offering economic assistance for the return of the territory.

Even if Putin is not deposed, the thinking goes, he may be willing to exchange the islands for assistance if international sanctions remain in place for years.

Echoes of the Yeltsin era

When Boris Yeltsin was the Russian leader, Japan came very close to reaching an agreement that would have seen at least some of the islands returned to Japanese control in return for economic assistance, but it fell through, said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

So there is certainly precedent for this scenario, he told DW. “And it is certainly conceivable that if Russia does descend into chaos that whoever takes over in Moscow inherits so many economic and diplomatic problems that they are willing to discuss the Northern Territories once again.”

He concedes, however, that any diplomatic initiative launched by Tokyo could very quickly be redundant should China decide to use military force to seize territory in the Russian Far East, something that Japan could simply not contemplate.

China’s ticket to the Pacific

Much of what is today the Russian Far East was until the mid-1800s part of Chinese Manchuria and it is likely that the Chinese government would be interested in accessing the reserves of energy and raw materials that lie beneath Russia’s vast steppes.

Japanese analysts note that Beijing has recently started to refer to Russian Far East cities by their former Chinese names. This includes the port city of Vladivostok and the island of Sakhalin. The island, with its 7 million Russian inhabitants, would stand little chance of resisting a potential Chinese invasion on its own.

Beijing would also have strategic incentives to assume control of the territory. China is hemmed into the relatively shallow coastal waters by the line of islands formed by Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, all of which are hostile to Beijing’s expansionist plans.

According to professor Yoichi Shimada, taking over the Kuril islands would give China “access to the Arctic region as well as naval ports directly onto the North Pacific.” As the possibility of chaos in Russia grows, we have to be careful about China, he said.

Splintering of Russia ‘not all that likely’

Yakov Zinberg, a professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Kokushikan University, says that despite Japan’s ambitions for the Northern Territories, Chinese action to secure the Russian Far East “is a far more realistic possibility.”

Even if Russia did enter into negotiations with Japan over the Kuril Islands, Beijing would quickly intervene and make use of the “close alignment” to arrange a solution that was more favorable to China, said Zinberg, who is originally from St Petersburg.

“For me, the hope for a complete Russian collapse and the splintering of Russia is not all that likely,” said Zinberg. Yes, Russia could be economically weakened, but I do not think it would be to the point that Moscow would have to consider giving its territory away to Japan.

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