OSAKA, Japan — With his shock resignation as foreign minister this week, Seiji Maehara not only deepened the political crisis facing Japan’s government, he also bequeathed his successor a simmering territorial row with Russia.
The dispute over the Northern Territories — a group of four islands just six miles off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island — has taken on a forbidding tone that threatens to drive a wedge between the two East Asian powers.
The dispute stretches back to the days after Japan’s surrender in World War II, when Soviet forces invaded the islands, expelling residents and, over time, turning them into a Russian enclave that gave the then Soviet Union a buffer on its far eastern maritime border.
Tokyo has never relinquished its claims to the islands, citing the Soviet Union’s failure to sign a 1951 peace treaty that formally established postwar borders in the region. The dispute means Tokyo and Moscow are still formally at war.
While the number of Russian troops in the area has fallen to 3,000 from its peak of 10,000, reports that Moscow is to cement its hold on the islands with the deployment of sophisticated military hardware has, in the words of one Japanese official, sent bilateral relations to their “worst point in decades.”
Russia is to deploy cruise missiles capable of striking Hokkaido, an advanced air defense system and attack helicopters, according to reports from the country’s Interfax news agancy. Military officials have said that at least one of four Mistral-class amphibious assault ships Russia is building with France could be deployed in the region as part of a $150 million program to strengthen its Pacific fleet of submarines and surface ships.
The plans come after decades of failed diplomatic attempts to resolve the dispute over Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai rocks — known in Russia as the Southern Kurils.
Kremlin officials insist that the build-up is part of attempts to modernize the country’s military presence in its far eastern region, hereby enabling it to reduce troop numbers.
Japan, though, takes a different view. “Russia's military build-up on the four northern islands is totally incompatible with our country's position," the chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, told reporters. “It is deplorable.”
After decades in which scant attention was paid to the 19,000 or so residents of the Kuril island group, most of whom live on the four disputed islands, what is really behind Russia’s recent moves?
Moscow has compelling strategic reasons for its multimillion-dollar Southern Kurils project, not least because the islands give it the ability to project its power in the Pacific Ocean via the Sea of Okhotsk. The expenditure also sends a clear message to China, whose ballooning military budget is causing disquiet across the region.
Russia’s new focus on its far eastern reaches spells more trouble for Japan, whose priorities lie farther south where it is embroiled in disagreements with China over territory and access to energy sources in the east and south China seas.
That much was clear last week when Japan scrambled F-15 fighter planes to intercept Chinese surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft that had been detected within 30 miles of the Senkakus, a group of islets claimed by both countries.
Moscow’s other motivation is economic. Flush with petro-dollars, Russia finally has the financial wherewithal to invest in its remotest regions.
The Kurils are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and sit on vast mineral resources, as well as an estimated 160 million tons of natural gas and nearly 1,900 tons of gold and other precious metals. Russia has earmarked $615 million in investment for the islands, including an overhaul of their dilapidated infrastructure and, controversially, the launch of joint fisheries ventures with Chinese and South Korean companies.
In making business overtures to China and South Korea, Russia risks angering Japan further. Yet with so much investment at stake and negotiations on the Kurils at a virtual standstill, it appears that rattling Tokyo’s cage is no longer a major factor in Kremlin logic.
China, meanwhile, has quietly abandoned its Cold War-era support for Japan’s claims over the islands since last September’s collision between a Chinese trawler and a Japanese coastguard vessel near the Senkakus.
"These islands are unique,” said Dmitry Medvedev, who last November became the first Russian president to visit the Southern Kurils. “There are opportunities to develop tourism there. We need to lure investors to these islands. Those who do not consider our cooperation insulting are welcome."
Medvedev’s visit, and his description of islands as an “unalienable part of the Russian Federation,” drew a furious response from Japan. Speaking to supporters at a day of action promoting Japan’s claims, the prime minister, Naoto Kan, accused the Russian leader of committing “an unforgivable outrage.”
A string of senior Russian officials have followed Medvedev to the islands, including the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, as well as business delegations.
''No matter how many VIPs go, or how much they strengthen their military presence, the view based on international law remains quite unchanged,” said Maehara. “[The islands] are originally Japanese territory. The Russian occupation has no basis in international law.”
Maehara’s meeting with Lavrov in Moscow last month did nothing to defuse the row. After the talks, which began without the customary handshake, Lavrov said Japan’s position “mars the climate in our relations and doesn't help their development … it becomes pointless to conduct a dialogue on the issue."
The prospects for a breakthrough will remain dim as long as the diplomatic air remains thick with intemperance. And with Kan fighting for his political life amid scandal and parliamentary gridlock, and Medvedev possibly preparing a bid for re-election next year, neither side is expected to add new initiatives to the negotiating mix.
In the words of one Japanese newspaper editorial, the “Russianization” of the Southern Kurils is set to continue. And with it the re-emergence of Russia as a Pacific force to be reckoned with.