Kurile Islands get a name
Asia Times – 12/09/2012 – por M. K. Bhadrakumar
A significant outcome of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum may turn out to be the fillip it gave to the recent trends in Russia-Japan relations. In his recap at the end of the summit in Vladivostok over the weekend, President Vladimir Putin said: “Japan is our key partner in the region. We want to settle all the problems that we have inherited from the past. We have agreed that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will pay a visit to Russia to discuss all such problems in a calm atmosphere.”
The Japanese side is already eyeing a December visit to Moscow for Noda. Putin added: “I had an impression that the Japanese prime minister was satisfied with the progress of the Japanese businesses in Russia.”
Make no mistake about it, another attempt is commencing in all earnestness aimed at transforming the Russo-Japanese relationship. Putin has always been enthusiastic about the normalization of relations. The two countries are technically at war, having failed to conclude a peace treaty after World War II and are trapped in an uneasy relationship, thanks to the dispute over the Kurile Islands.
With Putin back in the Kremlin, Tokyo senses an opportune time to approach the Russia ties with some fresh thinking. The Russian moves toward Japan are also becoming nuanced. While there has been an apparent flexing of muscle over the Kuriles, Russia is also probing a compromise formula. On its part, Tokyo has taken the recent Russian “provocations” (Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the disputed islands) in its stride, signaling its keenness not to raise dust in the overall relationship, which has a raison d’etre of its own.
What gives impetus to the shift in the tectonic plates is that both Russia and Japan are maneuvering against the backdrop of the great fluidity in the Asia-Pacific’s security emanating out of China’s rise. Neither side would admit it, but they need to come to terms with China’s rise. But Russia is better placed to leverage the normalization of relations with Japan, since it has a strong partnership with China, which, as Putin characterized last weekend, has “colossal potential”, whereas, Sino-Japanese relationship is buffeted by tensions. Having said that, Japan’s trump card is that its investment and trade can make all the difference to Russia’s blueprint for the all-round innovation of the Russian economy and the development of its vast Siberian and far eastern regions in particular.
Indeed, when it comes to Asia-Pacific, one core issue for Moscow is the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East. This is evident from the high attention that Moscow paid to hosting the APEC summit. APEC has no serious prospects of developing as a free-trade area — unlike the sub-regional groupings in the region which are actively contemplating the FTA — and whatever progress APEC makes as a “clearing house” on trade and investment issues can only be incremental and painfully slow.
Even so, Moscow saw its usefulness as a forum for Russia to showcase its accession to the World Trade Organization (and the new attractions of trading and investing in Russia that follow from it) as well as the potentials of Russia becoming a cost-effective and efficient transportation artery connecting the dynamic Asia-Pacific with Europe. In fact, the experts of the APEC’s Business Advisory Council estimate that the trade flow through the Russian route could increase over five-fold through this decade.
Strong undercurrents To be sure, Moscow has a burning desire for Japanese involvement in the Russian economy. Japan can bring advanced technology and capital and significantly boost Russia’s plans of “innovation”. But there is also a strategic dimension to it insofar as from Moscow’s perspective, Japan can be a counterweight to China’s looming presence in the vast expanses of Siberia and the Far East. Arguably, if Moscow has its way, it might rather prefer Japan as its key investor in Siberia and the Far East.
Interestingly, the only significant business agreement to be reached on the sidelines of the weekend summit in Vladivostok turned out to be one between Russia’s Gazprom and the Japanese government to set up a US$13 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant on Russia’s Pacific coast. By putting the deal with Japan on a fast track, Russia is signaling its preference for LNG as a flexible product – natural gas can be shipped to different destinations through any dedicated pipeline routes to individual countries (say, China or South Korea).
The Russian preference seems to be, why deal with a pipeline toward a single buyer if you can ship the gas by sea to a variety of destinations with more flexible contracts? No doubt, Beijing would have taken note of the Russia-Japan LNG deal. Beijing’s negotiations with Moscow over stalled gas price have got protracted and there is yet no end in sight, while Russia and Japan may be closing a deal. The Russia-Japan LNG plant is expected to come on stream in 2017, and thereafter the pipeline to China or South Korea may become even less of a priority for Moscow.
However, the dispute over the Kurile Islands remains a sore thumb in Russia-Japan relations and it is also an emotive issue for Japan that is mixed up with its domestic nationalistic agendas. The Chinese commentators have concluded that the Kurile Islands issue cannot be resolved anytime soon — the implication being that Russia-Japan normalization can go thus far and no further in a foreseeable future. Admittedly, there is merit in this argument.
The point is, Japanese politics is at a defining moment. On the one hand, there is a nationalist surge; on the other hand, as the Australian scholar Rikki Kersten put it, “Japan’s political spectrum is in the throes of disintegration and realignment.” The ruling Democratic Party of Japan is splintering, several regional groupings are appearing and the locus of coalition politics is shifting away from the existing mainstream parties.
Suffice to say, hawkish positions are a safe bet for politicians in such times of flux and uncertainty when it comes to emotive issues of the country’s territorial integrity — be it the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands or the Kurile Islands. The current case of Tokyo’s proposal to “buy back” four of the five islands of the Senkaku/Diaoyu chain from the private owners shows how even a “moderate” politician such as Noda comes under compulsion to outmaneuver hawkish adversaries in the surcharged political scene. The acuteness of the emergent political situation in Japan is such that, to quote Kersten: The spike in [Japan’s] territorial disputes could become a centripetal force for the formation of new coalitions of security-policy cohorts from across the political spectrum in Japan. It is possible that defense, and by implication constitutional revision, could become the issue that not only channels political opportunism, but enables individuals such as Noda to seize the political initiative. Instead of resisting realignment, he would seek to lead it, using defense as a strategic lever.
For Japan, the nexus of political change and territorial disputes could facilitate the elimination of tension in the constitution between passive pacifism and the maintenance of defense forces. It could also extend to Japan embracing the right to collective defense, with or without the sanction of a UN-sponsored action. If devised and delivered in a climate of threat and jousting nationalists throughout the Northeast Asian region, these revisions could contribute to even greater insecurity in a region already replete with security challenges.  Moscow is seized of these strong undercurrents in Japanese politics. The “second coming” by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the Kurile Islands in July – the first-ever visit by a Russian head of state to the disputed islands took place in November 2010 – can be seen in retrospect as a calibrated political and diplomatic move to probe the Japanese sensitivities. Medvedev asserted during the July visit: I’d like to underline that I consider visiting the Kuriles by the Government of the Russian Federation crucially important. We have been doing it before and, naturally, this practice will be continued by the new Cabinet. [The reasons for that] are quite clear; [the islands] are an important part of the Sakhalin region and an important past of the Russian land. What is in a name? These were not mere symbolic moves. Medvedev also took a decision in February last year following his first visit to reinforce the Russian military deployments on the islands. “This is just our land and military forces should be deployed there since this is the border” and the deployment should be “sufficient and modern in order to ensure the security of the islands as an integral part of Russia”, Medvedev was quoted as saying at a cabinet meeting in the Kremlin. He said Russia would keep strengthening its military presence on the islands because of their strategic importance. At the same time, Medvedev threw the ball into Tokyo’s court with a nuanced proposition: Undoubtedly, we want to expand good relations with all our neighbors, including cooperation on a number of issues on the Islands. We are inviting everyone who doesn’t find such cooperation insulting to take part … We should develop fully fledged infrastructure intended to serve for a long time … I have been talking to everyone about that, including our neighbors, who could use those benefits … The region must have prospects for development. On another occasion, Medvedev was rather forthright: “We [Russia] are prepared for the joint use of the islands, to offer opportunities for investment, to protect Japanese investment and create conditions for doing business. We are ready to do it right now.” But regrettably, he pointed out, Japan advocates a different approach and insists that the two countries must first resolve their dispute over sovereignty over the islands before making investments. “It won’t do”, he added.
The poignancy of the current moment lies exactly here – there is a growing mutual desire on the part of Moscow and Tokyo to get going with a normal relationship that can be of great benefit to both sides but the sky remains overcast. Simply put, Tokyo banks on Putin’s pragmatism and his long-term vision for Russia-Japan relations. But then, Moscow also has many broths cooking in the kitchen – and Kuriles noodle soup may not even be the main course. One such broth could actually be the US’ missile defense deployments in Japan.
Early last week, Putin himself referred to the issue in a wide-ranging interview with RTV devoted to the APEC summit. Putin said: But the issue you mentioned — the US missile defense system – is surely one of the key issues on today’s agenda because it involves Russia’s vital interests … In essence, the [US] intention is to upset the strategic balance, which is a very dangerous thing to do, as any involved party will always strive to maintain its defensive capabilities, and the entire thing could simply trigger off an arms race. Is it possible to find a solution to the problem, if President Obama is re-elected for a second term? In principle, yes, it is. But this isn’t just about President Obama. For all I know, his desire to work out a solution is quite sincere.
My feeling is that he is a sincere man and that he sincerely wants to implement positive change. But can he do it, will they let him do it? I mean that there is also the military lobby, and the Department of State, which is quite conservative … They are run by a number of professional clans who have been working there for decades … This is a highly sensitive area of national defense … Our partners are so far refusing to go along … but naturally, as our American partners proceed with developing their own missile defense we shall have to think of how we can defend ourselves and preserve the strategic balance. Ever since the Wall Street Journal broke the story a few weeks ago regarding the US’ Ballistic Missile Defense deployments in the Asian continent (following the deployments in Romania, Turkey and Qatar), Moscow has been brooding. Moscow commentators viewed the US deployments in Asia as posing a threat to China’s second-strike nuclear capability. But at a non-proliferation conference in Moscow on Friday, Russian foreign ministry finally broke its silence on the issue.
Addressing the APEC summit, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov expressed Russia’s concern over the US deployment in Asia. Ryabkov said, “The continuing growth of the US potential in what we call the Far East — the Asia-Pacific region — does not go unnoticed in Russia. We are closely following what is happening between the USA and its allies in Asia.” He added that Moscow’s concerns arise from the technology involved as well as the “geography and the US capability to deploy these assets in different locations”. He called on Washington to ease Moscow’s concerns.
These remarks were made on the eve of Putin’s meetings with Noda and the Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vladivostok. Evidently, Moscow will utilize Noda’s visit in December for a comprehensive political and strategic engagement of Japan of which the Kurile becomes an important sub-plot at best, from the Russian perspective.
Meanwhile, on Monday, Itar-Tass reported that the “nameless Kurile islands have been awarded names”. And one of the two rocky wind-swept islets with an area of about 100 square meters and rising 30 meters above sea level has been named in honor of Major General Alexei Gnechko, who was, of course, the commander of the Kurile amphibious operation in 1945.
The Itar-Tass said more such “name-awarding” for the remaining three islands is scheduled for October. It seems inevitable that by the time Noda lands in Moscow, the Kurile Islands will have proper Russian names symbolizing the indivisibility of Russian territories.