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Russia’s Lost Opportunity with Japan

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TOKYO – The recent smooth exchange of spies between Russia and the United States appears to demonstrate that the “reset” in relations between the two countries has worked. But Russia has so far done little to “reset” its relations with Japan. That is not only a lost opportunity, given Russia’s need to modernize its economy, but a grave strategic error in view of Russia’s increasing worries about China’s ambitions in Asia, which includes Russia’s lightly populated Siberian provinces.

In April, China’s navy carried out military exercises near Japan, and its Fleet No. 91756, recognized as one of its finest, conducted a live-fire exercise in the East China Sea off the coast of Zhejiang province, including missile-interception training with new vessels. China’s objectives appear to have been to enhance its navy’s operational capacity, particularly in terms of jamming and electronic warfare, and to test its joint capabilities with the Chinese air force.

Perhaps more importantly, the Chinese seem to have intended to send a warning signal to US and South Korean naval forces as their joint maneuvers in the Yellow Sea approach. But the Chinese also sent a powerful signal to Japan and Russia.

Japan’s government should, of course, be keeping a close eye on China’s military. Instead, the current Japanese administration plans to send the ex-chairman of sogo-shosha (a trading conglomerate) as its ambassador to China – that is, a man whose interests in China may be commercial rather than national security.

Meanwhile, Russia is only now beginning to realize that it must be pro-active in protecting its national-security interests in the Pacific region. The problem is that Russia’s focus is wrong-headed. For coinciding with China’s naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, the Russian Armed Forces carried out part of its “Vostok 2010” drills (involving 1,500 troops) on Etorofu, the largest island among the Russian-occupied Northern Territories of Japan. The entire Vostok 2010 exercise involved more than 20,000 troops.

Russia’s illegal occupation of these islands began on August 18, 1945, three days after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration (or the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender), which ended the Pacific War. Stalin’s Red Army nonetheless invaded the Chishima Islands, and has occupied them, Southern Karafuto (or Southern Sakhalin), and the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai – which had never been part of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union at any point in history – ever since.

Indeed, the lower house of Russia’s Duma recently passed a resolution designating September 2 as the anniversary of the “real” end of World War II, effectively making it a day to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Japan – and thus an attempt to undermine Japan’s claim that the occupation of the islands came after WWII’s end.

On a recent trip to Russia’s Asian port of Vladivostok, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev declared that the social and economic development of Russia’s Far East is a national priority. By continuing to maintain its illegal occupation of Japanese territory, however, Russia precludes expansive Japanese involvement in this effort, effectively leaving the Chinese to dominate the region’s development.

Russia’s persistence in its self-defeating occupation is surprising. Indeed, when Boris Yeltsin was Russia’s president, the country came close to recognizing the need to return the Northern Territories to Japan. But a nationalist backlash doomed Yeltsin’s efforts.

Even Japan’s strategically myopic current government seems to understand that Russia needs to play some role in achieving a new balance of power in Asia. There are rumors that Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration is planning to break the logjam in the Japan-Russia relationship by appointing Yukio Hatoyama, his predecessor as prime minister, ambassador to Russia.

Hatoyama is the grandson of Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, who signed the Japanese-Soviet Joint Declaration on October 19, 1956, which formally restored diplomatic relations between two countries and also enabled Japan’s entry into the United Nations. That treaty, however, did not settle the territorial dispute, resolution of which was put off until the conclusion of a permanent peace treaty between Japan and the Soviet Union (now Russia).

In the 1956 declaration, the two countries agreed to negotiate such a treaty, and the Soviet Union was to hand over Shikotan and Habomai islands to Japan once it was concluded. In the meantime, the status of the larger Etorofu and Kunashiri islands would remain unresolved and subject to negotiation.

Japanese public opinion has remained adamant for decades that all four islands belong to Japan, and that no real peace can exist until they are returned. So sending Hatoyama as ambassador may elicit harsh criticism, as his grandfather once agreed to a peace process that returned only two islands, and many Japanese fear that his grandson may also be prepared to cut another unequal deal.

Ambassadorial appointments should never be used as political stunts. This is particularly true for the appointment of an ambassador to a country that is critical to Asia’s balance of power. But it is not surprising coming from a government that lacks any coherent concept of Japan’s national security.

Fortunately, Japanese voters sense their government’s irresolute nature, delivering it a sharp rebuke in the recent elections to the upper house of Japan’s Diet. But it is not only Japan that needs a government that takes regional security issues seriously. Russia should recognize that it has neglected its position in Asia for too long, and that only when it returns Japan’s Northern Territories can Japanese expertise be brought seriously to bear in developing Russia’s Far East.

Only normal bilateral relations will allow the two countries to work together to forge a lasting Asian balance of power. Given his record, Vladimir Putin would not face the type of nationalist backlash Yeltsin confronted if he sought to reach an agreement that restored Japan’s sovereignty over its Northern Territories. Will he have the strategic vision to do so?

Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese Minister of Defense and National Security Advisor, is a member of the opposition in Japan’s Diet. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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