by Michael Lerner
Japan and Russia began talks in Tokyo on Wednesday to try and reach a peace agreement formally ending their WWII hostilities. That’s right, they technically remain at war over 70 years later, having never signed a peace treaty due to Russia (then the USSR) annexing Japan’s South Kuril islands in the final days of the actual war.
Although all Japanese residents were repatriated from the four islands within two years, Japan never relinquished its claim to sovereignty over the islands. Tokyo has since insisted that the islands’ sovereignty must be settled before a peace treaty can be concluded, while Moscow has argued that the two issues are separate and that it occupied the islands legitimately during wartime in 1945.
But seven decades of intransigence haven’t served the interests of either side. Russia is keen on developing its Far East, hoping to spur hubs of technology and development to rival other Asian stars. Japan is very interested in the potential investment opportunities there, so the best chance of resolving this dispute lies in shared economic interests. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese P.M. Shinzo Abe both agreed in May that a “new approach” was needed. Foreshadowing what’s to come, at that discussion Abe presented an eight-point economic cooperation plan across the Russian Far East to make Tokyo’s territorial demands more palatable.
These discussions now underway in Tokyo are to set the stage for direct talks between Putin and Abe in the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok in September. Moscow might have to give up its plans to further develop the Kuril Islands, and may decide to return some territory back to Japan in exchange for big investments. Or they might decide to freeze the status quo, demilitarize the region, or even have some form of joint sovereignty. Any of these — if mutually agreed upon — would be a welcome change from this unnecessary dispute. As Blouin News noted last year on this issue, “Russia and China successfully resolved their geographically much larger disputed border to mutual satisfaction, so anything’s possible.”