On Saturday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a landmark meeting in which economic and geopolitical matters between the two powerful nations were discussed. Central in the discussion, however, was the future of the Kuril Islands in the western Pacific Ocean, which had been seized by Russia from Japan in 1945.
Tensions between Russia and Japan have been fuelled by a long-standing disagreement over the ownership of the islands since the 1940s. It was on Saturday 19th November, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima, Peru that Abe sat down with Putin and discussed the possibilities of resolving the territorial ownership issue through a peace treaty.
The Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territorial Islands) consist of four islands, which are located south of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and north of Japan’s Hokkaido. The islands separate the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean and, it also forms part of the Ring of Fire, a tectonic instability encircling the Pacific, which is often affected by the seismic and volcanic activity.
Since the Second World War, such a treaty has never been signed between the two nations due to the territorial dispute, however, according to Reuters, Abe has indicated that he “has come to see a path toward resolution” on the issue. The Japanese Prime Minister also stated that it would not be a quick and easy task: “A way to concluding a peace treaty is coming into sight… But we must make one step at a time. It is not easy to take a big step ahead,” he said.
The islands are currently in the hands of Russia after they were seized from Japan and 17,000 inhabitants were expelled. After, the United States insinuated an involvement in reclaiming the islands by sending in an aircraft to gather data on Soviet occupation, but Soviet defence intercepted and diverted the US aircraft. This event has been recognized as an early display of ‘Cold War’ behaviour between the two superpowers. Russia, however, assumes responsibility for the islands through compliance with a number of existing international treaties.
It is thought that Russia is economically-motivated to follow through with such a treaty due to the nation’s economy being hit by western sanctions and low oil prices, among other factors. It would be sensible for Russia to maintain good relations considering the location of the two, and a return of the islands to Japan will supposedly have a positive effect on the islands’ economy. However, as the islands are situated in a passage of water that does not freeze over in winter (thus providing Russia access to the Pacific Ocean), and the fact that any handover of land to Japan will make other territorial claims by other countries against Russia become more promising, Russia will not hand over any land quickly at all.
Vladimir Putin has been invited to Japan in December for further talks.
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