Pacific News Minute: Putin-Abe Summit Fails to Resolve 70 Year-Old Island Dispute

Jan 23, 2019


After three hours of talks in Moscow yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made no progress on the long running territorial dispute over four islands north of Hokkaido. While the two sides agreed to keep talking, a breakthrough looks as distant as ever.

On the face of it, both sides stand to gain on a deal over barren islands in the remote waters just off the north coast of Japan. Russia stands to gain Japanese investment in the stagnant economy of its far east. Maybe more important, Russia could gain influence with a key American ally and a potential partner against the growing power of China.

For Prime Minister Abe, the stakes are more personal – his father, Shintaro Abe, tried to make a deal on the islands when he was foreign minister. Agreement with Russia would also be a diplomatic coup and Prime Minister Abe has discussed it with Putin 25 times now. So far, no dice.

The dispute over what Russia calls the Southern Kuriles, and Japan the Northern Territories, is unfinished business from the second world war. Soviet troops seized the Islands in the last days of the conflict and rival claims continue to block a peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo.

Prospects which seemed so bright last fall appear to have foundered on nationalist opposition in Russia. One speaker at a protest outside the Japanese embassy in Moscow over the weekend declared that any mention of handling over the islands amounts to treason: “Today we give away the Kuriles,” Igor Skurlatov declared, “tomorrow we’ll give away Crimea.” 

James Brown of Temple University in Tokyo believes that Russia prefers the issue un-resolved. The expert on Japanese Russian relations told the Wall Street Journal, “The Russian leadership realizes it’s helpful to keep this dispute alive and maintain leverage over Japan.”