The Japan-Russo Northern Territories Negotiation: V. Where Will the Talk End Up?

At the end of this series, let us think about the landing point of the negotiation on Northern Territories between Abe and Putin.

First of all, it is not realistic at all to expect Putin to hand over the four islands back to Japan. Whatever economic assistance the Japanese government offers, or whatever phased scheme it creates, the recovery of the four islands is a daydream. I already explained the reasons in the Part III.

What about “the two plus something”? Because the Soviet Union once agreed to return Shikotan and Habomais in Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956, not a few Japanese believe or want to believe that Japan’s territorial right on the two islands is guaranteed. They go on to advocate that Moscow should add more concessions on the return of the two small islands if Japan compromises to give up the recovery of all the four islands. More specifically, some demand the return of three islands, adding either Etorofu or Kunashiri to Shikotan and Habomais. Others insist on equally dividing the acreage of the four islands, or Japan taking Shikotan, Habomais, Kunashiri and a quarter of Etorofu. But these are also wishful thinking. Kunashiri and Etorofu are simply too important for Moscow to abandon. Putin has repeatedly expressed his will to finally resolve the territorial issue along with the Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration of 1956, meaning Kunashiri and Etorofu should be excluded from the negotiation.

Is the recovery of the two islands of Shikotan and Habomais guaranteed minimum? I guess that is the best Japan can realistically hope for, but still never guaranteed. The Russians would not regard the sovereignty of Shikotan and Habomais as Japan’s vested interests. Putin is more likely to attempt making a deal at “the two minus something.” For example, Russia would agree to return only Habomais where few people inhabit. Or it may want to prolong the actual transfer of Shikotan and Habomais, while shelving off the issue of attribution of Kunashiri and Etorofu by establishing a consultation mechanism between Japan and Russia. It goes without saying that Moscow would demand large-scale economic cooperation from Japan as a consideration for “the two minus something.”

One interesting idea is “condominium” or the joint sovereignty that Nikkei newspaper reported on October 17. Although relatively rare, we find some instances of condominium elsewhere. For example, Pheasant Island has been a condominium of France and Spain since 1659. To name a few in the history, Cyprus from 688 to 965 by the Byzantine Emperors and the Arab Caliphs, Sudan from 1899 to 1956 by the U.K. and Egypt, and New Hebrides from 1906 to 1980 by France and Britain before attaining independence as the Republic of Vanuatu.

Compare with the direct transfer of the sovereignty, the notion of condominium will be acceptable for Russia. But it is too soon to expect that condominium works for the Northern Territories. Russia or the Soviet Union has effectively governed the four islands for more than seven decades, while Japanese residents have been deported since the Soviet invasion in 1945. The Russian military has its facilities in Kunashiri and Etorofu. Kremlin would find little incentive to agree to the condominium.

What’s more, over sixteen thousand Russians who live in the three islands will not likely to accept the condominium with Japan. Recall the case of Gibraltar where the British and the Spanish governments reached a basic agreement to introduce a condominium in 2002. The 98 percent of the residents of Gibraltar rejected it by referendum, and the agreement between the two governments became a piece of paper. As a “democratic” president of Russia, Putin will not be able to force the islanders to accept the unilateral decision made by the government, either. From the same reason, possibility of admitting the right of residence to Russian islanders, while returning the sovereignty to Japan, will be also slim.

The best scenario for Russia is to receive economic cooperation from Japan without making substantial concessions in the territorial dispute. Valentina Matviyenko, the head of Russia’s upper chamber of parliament and one of the aides of Putin, stated on November 1 that she welcomes Russo-Japanese joint economic activities in the South Kuril Islands within the Russian legal framework. Of course, Abe will lose face if that is the only outcome of the summit meeting with Putin.

Agreeing to the conclusion of a peace treaty within a definite period of time and a considerable economic cooperation, together with cosmetic reference to the possibility of returning some of the Northern Territories, will be one of the worst scenarios for Prime Minister Abe. This landing point will be permissible when Japan and Russia fail to reach a substantial agreement on the territorial issue, and still need to announce an “outcome.” As I questioned earlier, however, the conclusion of a peace treaty itself is only a nominal fruit for Japan.


There has been a speculation that Abe is trying to dissolve the Diet by appealing a historical achievement in the territorial negotiation with Russia. The more Abe thirsts for an exploit in the December summit, the larger is the room for Putin to maneuver the deal. We all know that Abe’s personal gain in the context of general election is never identical to an interest of Japan.


メールアドレスが公開されることはありません。 * が付いている欄は必須項目です