Disputes over the South Kuril Islands, known by Japan as the Northern Territories, have dragged on since Russia seized the territory from Japan at the end of World War II. Last fall, Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian President to visit the disputed islands. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan described the visit last week as an unforgivable outrage, and Japanese and Russian top diplomats traded undiplomatic language over the disputed islands. The recent visit of Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara to Moscow seems to have been fruitless.
Why is Russia so keen on asserting its sovereignty over the disputed islands this time round? Will tensions further escalate? Should China and South Korea work with Russia in developing these islands? Global Times reporter Yu Jincui talked to Dmitri Trenin, director of the US-based Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center, on these issues.
GT: Some comment that by confronting with Russia's series of actions to assert sovereignty over the South Kuril Islands, Japan has been driven into an unfavorable defending position, and hasn't come up with any effective countermeasures. How do you view the situation?
Trenin: The Japanese government was criticized for its weak response to Russia's assertion of its sovereignty over the Southern Kurils. It is quite understandable.
The islands have been under Moscow's control since 1945. A Japanese military move to dislodge the Russians is unthinkable.
Politically, the islands issue already weighs in heavily on the bilateral relationship. Economically, Japanese investments in Russia are anything but charity, and Russian energy supplies to Japan are not exactly unwelcome.
The fundamental problem with the Japanese position is that Japan views the islands as part of sacred Japanese land, and has turned the issue into a symbol of Japanese sovereignty and territorial integrity.
For Moscow, ceding the islands simply in the name of justice and fairness is unthinkable. In principle, Russia was prepared, until recently, to do a deal, by giving something - not everything - to Japan and closing the issue for good.
Though some Japanese politicians in the past indicated that they were prepared to negotiate on that basis, right-wing patriots scuttled their efforts. Japan's politically weak short-duration cabinets find it difficult or impossible to show strategic vision and tactical flexibility to move toward agreement with Russia on virtually the only major issue of discord between Tokyo and Moscow.
Many are pessimistic on the alleviation of the escalating tensions. Some predict that Russia will not make any compromise on the issue. Why has Russia taken a tough stance on the issue this time?
For the time being, Russia is not dealing.
Its leaders feel they were flexible enough in the past, to no effect. 2011-12 is the time of parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia, time to demonstrate toughness and strength, rather than flexibility and willingness to reach a compromise.
Taken in a broader context, this may represent a change in tactics: Whereas before Moscow offered Tokyo a carrot, and Putin talked about handing over two smaller islands, which was too little for the Japanese, now the Kremlin is showing the stick by suggesting that the status quo is final.
The Russians, of course, would prefer a resolution, but not on the basis of a full and complete surrender to the Japanese demands. Thus, the dispute is likely to oscillate, for the foreseeable future. The high-water mark was reached in early February; it is now beginning to ease. At some future point, tensions may rise again, only to subside later.
Analysts believe Maehara's visit to Russia is an effort to win Russian concessions in the dispute by expanding economic cooperation. Will this take effect or will the dispute further escalate?
The dispute has crested, this time, and will de-escalate. Maehara's visit to Moscow was an indication of that. Russia and Japan have a number of issues to discuss in addition to the islands. Economic links between Japan and Russia have been developing independently of the islands issue.
Russia has called on South Korea and China to jointly develop the disputed island resources. Will they respond?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's offer certainly unnerved the Japanese. As to whether it will entice the Chinese and the South Koreans, it is difficult to predict.
Whoever agrees to invest there must accept a degree of long-term risk of losing the title and also short-term sanctions from Tokyo.
China might decide to step in, using the investment as a geopolitical chip, as a means to drive a wedge even deeper between Russia and Japan and tying Moscow closer to Beijing. It will be interesting to see whether China does so, maybe using Hong Kong as a proxy.
Since the island dispute in the north is severe, why does Japan constantly strengthen its defense forces in the southwest?
During the Cold War era, the Japanese focused on the north, not to be able to recover the islands, which they knew was impossible, but in order to meet the possibility of invading Soviet forces in Hokkaido, the northernmost part of Japan's Home Islands.
Twenty years after the end of that confrontation, they have become satisfied that the "threat from the north" is no more. By contrast, they become increasingly concerned over the rising strength of the Chinese navy. Logically, they are shifting resources to the southwest.
As to the dispute over the islands, it is essentially political and, as both sides privately agree, this is not even about foreign policy, but domestic politics. Appealing to nationalist constituencies is a sure vote getter in both Japan and Russia.
Besides the South Kuril Islands dispute, there are many other island disputes in Northeast Asian region, such as the Diaoyu dispute between Japan and China, and the Tokto Island dispute between Japan and South Korea. Will island disputes damage stability in Northeast Asia? How can they be managed?
What happened last year between a Chinese vessel and a Japanese Coast Guard ship has already sent waves across the Pacific basin.
The South Korea-Japan dispute is still dormant, and I do not expect it to erupt in the near future. Seoul, Tokyo and Washington have a strong interest in keeping the issue cold. There are other claims, however, in the South China Sea that add to regional tensions.
One manages these things best by accepting a need for a negotiated solution; entering into talks; and solving the problem on the basis of a compromise, as in the case of the Sino-Russian deal over the islands on the Amur and Ussuri rivers. But this is easier said than done.