The Falklands Island War between Great Britain and Argentina in 1981 was once described as making as much sense as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” That same description could be applied to the recent spat between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands. The Kurils are a chain of rocky, barren, sparsely-populated islands that stretch from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula almost to Japan's northernmost main island, Hokkaido. In the dying days of World War II, Soviet troops seized the four southernmost islands in the Kuril chain and have held them ever since; Japan, meanwhile has long demanded that Russia return the islands to Japanese ownership. This dispute has prevented the two countries from formally signing a treaty to officially end World War II, even though the two nations have long had full diplomatic relations.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev caused a stir late last year when he became the first Russian leader to set foot on the Kurils. Now he's making waves again by declaring that Russia will deploy “modern” weapons to defend the Kurils which he then went on to claim were “an inseparable part” of Russia. His comments came just after February 7, which is Northern Territories Day in Japan, a day when the Japanese annually assert their claims of ownership over the four islands seized at the end of World War II.
A bigger question is why the two nations are engaging in such a high-profile spat over these islands in the first place. Of course ownership of them also gives one country of the other the right to use the rich fishing grounds around the islands and to explore the seabed for potential deposits of natural gas. But the dispute also threatens to derail Russo-Japanese relations; the two countries recently signed a joint deal to build a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plant on Russia's Sakhalin Island to supply Japan with natural gas, Russia also expects Japan to be a market for Siberian crude oil once their East Siberia Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline becomes fully operational in 2013.
Past the mineral wealth attached to the Kurils, the reason for the dispute over the islands seems to be more tied up with notions of national pride more than anything else. Writing in the Moscow Times, author Richard Lourie argues that in addition to controlling the mineral wealth the islands may or may not contain, Russia wants to keep control of the entire Kuril chain since that bit of territory completes the encirclement of a remote branch of the Northern Pacific known as the Sea of Okhotsk – you may have heard of this body of water (probably the only reason you've heard of this body of water) was because of last month's operation by the Russian Navy to rescue four icebound fishing trawlers, which gives you a pretty good idea of what life is like on the Sea of Okhotsk. Without being encircled by Russian territory, it could be argued that the Sea of Okhotsk was an international body of water, something Moscow apparently does not want. For Japan, the Kurils are the second island dispute they've been involved in during the just past year alone. The other was a faceoff with China over a collection of rocks in the South China Sea that the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call the Diaoyutai. That dispute led to a collision at-sea between Japanese and Chinese boats and a strong-arm Chinese embargo of rare earth elements to Japan (rare earths are vital in the production of a host of high-tech goods, which are the cornerstone of the Japanese economy).
With Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev looking to burnish his tough guy credentials in the light of his ruling tandem buddy, the International Man of Action, Vladimir Putin, and with the Japanese not wanting to lose face, again, over an island dispute, both sides seem set to dig in their heels over the Kurils, even if it makes as much sense as bald men fighting for a comb.
3 days ago