New Russia-Japan Deal to Make Kuril Islands an Area of Cooperation

The Russia-Japan summit which took place last week made clear first steps toward signing a peace treaty to end WWII under a new approach, similar to the one in the Spitzbergen (Svalbard) Islands, according to Nobuo Shimotomai, Professor at Tokyo’s Hosei University and Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

The Russo-Japanese summit in Yamaguchi and Tokyo on December 15-16 2016 took place in the year of the sixtieth anniversary of the Joint Declaration of 1956, when the Soviet communist leader Nikita Khrushchev and Japanese Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama normalized bilateral foreign relations. In this document, both agreed to negotiate on concluding the Peace Treaties, in which smaller islands of Habomais and Shikotan should be handed over to Japan. In the oriental calendar, a sixtieth anniversary means a kind of rebirth, or reset. This summit took place during the very time of this resetting process from the Joint Declaration to the new Peace Treaty.

Prior to this, Premier Abe announced that a “New Thinking” should be realized in his meeting in Sochi this May to negotiate the Peace Treaty, by proposing the Eight Points economic program. The Eastern Economic Forum held in Vladivostok in September had elevated Japanese expectations for the December summit and the eventual Peace Treaty by inviting Premier Minister Abe.

The results of the December summit may be summarized as follows. Firstly, it was decided to carry out joint economic activities under a special legal framework. Former Japanese islanders and business people are to visit freely without a visa there.

Secondly, the economic committee of each country will check the implementation of the Eight Point program. The 270 billion dollar economic cooperation program was signed and is likely to be followed by massive investment. Thirdly, the Security framework of the Two plus Two format will be resumed on issues of mutual interest, such as the Korean Peninsula and US-China relations.

Japanese public opinion is divided on how to assess the summit meeting. Some are negative on the result of this meeting, especially on the territorial issues, because of the lack of tangible results. President Putin had lowered the expectations, by saying to Japanese media prior to the Yamaguchi summit that there are “no territorial issues” between Russia and Japan.

This author thinks otherwise. The start of Joint Economic Activities, (or JEA) is de facto a condominium type of solution to the disputed lands. In other words, this is the beginning of a new joint type of governance by two governments on the disputed territories and this is embodied “New Approach.” This is the way to the conclusion to the Peace Treaty, by mutually trusting each other.

The JEA itself is not new. It had been agreed upon in the 1998 Moscow Declaration when Premier Minister Keizo Obuti met with Boris Yeltsin. However, both failed to agree on the applicability of the jurisdiction and sovereignty. Both leaders lacked willingness to carry out them consistently. This time both President Putin and Premier Minister Abe are strong leaders with overwhelming majority supports in their Parliaments and public opinion.

At the Lima meeting, which both leaders attended this past November, President Putin had admitted the JEA has several models, though Russians prefer the one under Russian law.

Disputed issues included the meaning of the “Special Framework” that Premier Abe suggested in his press meeting on December 15th. Putin had hinted that the target may be “One, Two, Three or Four islands”, but eventually both agreed to jointly govern at the four islands, as demanded by the Japanese. The “Special Framework” turned out to be under special international law arrangements, not those under the Russian jurisdiction, as had been suggested earlier. This is a new and non-standard and future-oriented framework, that does not prevent the two sides from claiming themselves. President Putin also suggested that he is prepared to open the closed areas of the islands. Maybe this is a kind of special area of mutual governance or condominium.

History knows precedent cases, such as Norwegian Spitzbergen (Svalbard) where both Russians and Norwegians lived together under the international framework. This experience made them easy to delimit or demarcate the national border in 2010.

The Joint Economic Activities under this arrangement in the Northern Territories, if it is implemented, will enhance the level of mutual interaction among peoples, municipalities, regions and interested companies, and would enhance trust among each other. Visa-free arrangement between Sakhalin and Hokkaido is likely to activate borderline trade and other activities.

Mr. Jigoro Kano, a judoist whom President Putin respects, always wrote, Jita kyouei, or “Flourish together.” The Four islands, which had prevented a rapprochement between the two nations in the Cold War days, may turn into the islands of living and working together under the special framework, and in turn pave way to the solution of the Peace Treaty. Then the very name of the Treaty will be better to be called as “Peace and Friendship, or Cooperation” Treaty.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.