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Analysis & Opinion
18.02.11 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Moscow Picking A Territorial Fight With Japan
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Alexandre Strokanov

Tensions are flaring up between Russia and Japan due to a long-running territorial dispute over the South Kuril Islands. Japan’s Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara flew to Moscow on Friday following provocative statements made on both sides. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began talks with Maehara by describing the government-sponsored rally in Tokyo on Monday, at which top Japanese officials demanded that Russia return the islands it seized at the end of World War II as "unacceptable." Why has Russia suddenly become so assertive on this sensitive issue? How can Moscow square this escalation of tensions with Japan with its own strategy of wooing foreign investment and forming “modernization alliances” with leading global players?

At a news conference after the talks Lavrov declared dialogue with Japan about the peace treaty pointless: "When radical approaches take the upper hand in Japan concerning the issue of a peace treaty, it becomes pointless to conduct a dialogue on the issue."

The dispute escalated began last November, when President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian leader to visit the disputed South Kuril Islands. This invoked a vitriolic reaction in Tokyo, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan calling the visit “unfortunate” and an “indignity to Japan.” The Kremlin in return bristled at the notion that a foreign government would have to approve the Russian president’s travel within Russian territory.

President Medvedev ordered heavy investment in the Kurils' defenses after his visit revealed crumbling 1940s gun turrets, and is sending two new warships out to join the Pacific Fleet that patrols the region.

After Medvedev’s trip to the islands, at least three top Russian government officials – First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – visited the South Kurils, much to the chagrin of the Japanese. Then last week during the annual celebration of “Northern Territories Day” in Japan, Japanese nationalists desecrated the Russian flag in front of the Russian Embassy, while the Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan demanded the return of the islands and called the recent visit there by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev "an unforgivable outrage." Medvedev fired back, saying that more weapons will be sent to protect the islands as an "inalienable part of Russia."

Then Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, on the eve of his visit to Moscow last week, told Reuters that Russia’s claims on the islands “have no basis in international law.” Sergei Prikhodko, Medvedev's foreign policy adviser, fired back: "The sovereignty of the Russian Federation in respect to the Kuril Islands will not be subject to any review ¬ either today or tomorrow," he told Russian news agencies.

Some Russian analysts attributed the ratcheting up of tensions with Japan on an issue that has been dormant for many years to the Kremlin’s desire to demonstrate toughness on the international stage. According to Andrei Kortunov of the Eurasia Foundation, “Medvedev and his team are often perceived as ‘softies,’ as ‘pro-Western’ liberals, so they want to demonstrate that on certain issues they might be pretty tough. They show they can be strong, they can flex their muscles, they can demonstrate that they can defend the national interests of the Russian Federation no matter what. As far as Russia is concerned, we are approaching the end of a political cycle here and the government wants to demonstrate that it is not just about making concessions to the West, that they can be tough. Of course Japan is an easy target because we don't have any kind of political relations with the Japanese to put in jeopardy," Kortunov said.

Others believe that the current Japanese government, led by the Japanese Democratic Party, blundered into a crisis by resorting to provocative language. As Fyodor Lukyanov said in Foreign Affairs Magazine, “The current Japanese cabinet led by Naoto Kan has escalated the rhetoric to Cold War levels. Tokyo's eagerness to project strength is obviously a reflection of the weakness and uncertainty it feels in the face of a rising China, an unpredictable North Korea, and Russia's greater involvement in Pacific affairs. The more domestic and foreign policy mistakes the party makes, the stronger its desire to compensate for the damage it has caused to Japan's prestige with bold gestures and displays of toughness. But Prime Minister Kan's tough talk is unlikely to achieve anything. Even Japanese politicians who favor a hard line toward Moscow are at a loss over his cabinet's unpredictable moves.”

So why now and who is more to blame? Why has Russia suddenly become so assertive on this sensitive issue? Is Medvedev really driven by domestic considerations of shoring up his credentials for toughness a year before the presidential election? Or does Moscow perceive a window of opportunity to “make it a fait accompli that the islands are its territory,” since it views the current Japanese government as weak and incompetent on security issues as was demonstrated recently by China’s humiliating treatment of Japan over a similar territorial dispute? How can Moscow square this escalation of tensions with Japan with its own strategy of wooing foreign investment and forming “modernization alliances” with the leading global players? Has Medvedev been ill-advised on Japan? How could this spat end?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of the Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:
Sooner or later it had to happen, and the fact that Dmitry Medvedev was the first Russian president to visit the islands certainly gives him a few points of recognition. It will also be good if subsequent visits by some high-ranking Russian officials bring some new developments and improvements to these Russian territories. The fact that Russia chose this moment to take these steps may be associated with the relative incompetence of the Japanese government and China’s famous actions in a similar territorial dispute.

However, the major goal for Russia is to avoid resting on its laurels and to really pay attention to the development of these four islands, as well as many other territories in the Russian Far East. It would be great if the Russian leadership learned from the mistakes of the tsarist government a century ago and from the Russo-Japanese war, which was also driven by domestic considerations and was viewed initially as a small, victorious war to boost the reputation of Tsar Nicholas II.

But in the case of military confrontation with Japan, which should not be ruled out, will the Russian government have enough strength and resources to rebuff a Japanese attack on the islands and to reaffirm its sovereignty over them? Regardless of how strange it might sound, this remains an option and should not be ruled out.

Meanwhile, the major issue is the development of these islands and changing the socio-economic situation there quickly. It is good that Dmitry Medvedev has seen with his own eyes what life on these islands is like today, and I do not think that he was pleased with the reality there. The idea of attracting Chinese and South Korean investors for the development of these islands is very reasonable and should be given a try. This will further enrage the Japanese government, but the internationalization of the conflict will be beneficial for Russia and not for Japan.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:
Moscow is not "picking a fight with Japan." Quite the opposite: Japan, apparently forgetting the lessons of history, seems to be seeking a confrontation with Russia.

The recent flare-up of Japanese antagonism over the South Kuril Islands is entirely the fault of the current Japanese government.

Japan's attitude demonstrates a submerged but active rejection of the blame and consequences of World War II. After defeat, Germany underwent a severe de-Nazification program and a highly consequential series of War Crimes trials; prosecutions of aging Nazi war criminals continue even today. Meanwhile, Japan underwent no such profound cleansing and repentance for its considerable crimes in World War II. War crimes trials in Japan were limited in scope; prosecution of residual Japanese war criminals has ceased long ago. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are seen by many Japanese as war crimes perpetrated by America on Japan, and certainly are not perceived as a stern reminder of the folly of aggression.

The mere existence of the "Northern Territories" festival is symptomatic of a worldview – apparently shared at the top of Japan's government – in which the lessons and results of World War II have been forgotten, if they were ever learned. This may become a worrisome situation for the entire Pacific Rim – Japan has for a while been modifying its constitutional stance on
the projection of military power.

Just before the "offending" visit by Medvedev to the South Kurils, Japan aggressively became embroiled in a dispute with China over islands to the south of Honshu. So Japan's confrontation with Russia is probably part of a broader pattern.

The background issue is the decline in Japanese regional influence. China has surpassed Japan with the second largest GDP in the world, and the Japanese export-based economy is increasingly outsold by its neighbors. With a restriction on rare-earth exports to Japan, China demonstrated very vividly how vulnerable Japan is. As Japan's export revenues shrink due to competition and declining demand (caused by the global economic crisis), there will be less money to buy the raw materials needed to fuel Japan's factories, which will further reduce its exports and force a non-linear implosion of the GDP. One would imagine that under such conditions Japan would "make nice" with its neighbors and trading partners, instead of insulting their flag.

In 1941 Japan, confronted with a potential economic decline, initiated a strategically insane war against the United States and the anti-Nazi alliance. If the lessons of World War II were not learned or have been forgotten, and if aggression is the instinctive response of an intrinsically weaker Japan to imaginary infringements on its sovereignty – then one should take a much closer look at a possibly re-emerging military threat.

Russia's response to the Kuril incident has actually been restrained – there was no disruption of diplomatic interaction (though a withdrawal of the ambassador "for consultations" is often used in response to insults to one's national symbols.) Russia even offered mutual investment deals to Japan (again, a withdrawal by Russia would hurt Japan much more) including in the South Kuril Islands. Even the negotiation of a peace treaty by Russia with Japan remains on the table –provided there are no pre-conditions on territorial issues.

The above is hardly "picking a fight" with Japan. Peace and conflict are not symmetrical. Peace is possible only when all of the involved parties agree. Conflict can happen if just one of the parties wants it. If Japan wants to fight Russia, there is nothing Russia can do unilaterally to avoid conflict – except to capitulate a priori. This was as true in 1904 as it is today.
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