How one of the region’s lingering territorial disputes can come to an end

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Japan’s neighbourhood is intractable. Cold War legacy severely affects it even today. It has been confronting with post-war territorial disputes with the Russian Federation, China, and South Korea. These thee disputes have an historical legacy. None of the contesters is giving an iota of concession to Japan, which used to be an imperial power that exclusively dominated the region up to the end of World War II.

“Japan’s defeat once again re-opened all these disputes. It signed separate peace treaties with all these countries since they refused to the sign the collective San Francisco peace treaty of 8 September 1951. Neither Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) nor the Republic of China (Taiwan) was invited to participate in the treaty’s deliberations due to their question over sovereignty as to who legally represents China.”

Therefore, Senkaku/Diaoyu became an issue unresolved at that time between Japan and mainland China as both claim sovereignty over the Islands. Taiwan got a counter claim against Japan and the PRC. Similarly, the Republic of Korea and North Korea were un-represented at the conference and were non-signatories to the peace treaty.

A territorial row thus emerged between Japan and the Republic of Korea over Takeshima/Dokdo islands. The Soviet Union got its own Cold War logic and the ‘tactics of the imperialist powers’ to dictate peace terms on Japan. Kuril Islands became a dispute between Japan and Soviet Union. United States reverted the Okinawa Islands to Japan in 1972 including Senkakus but China disputed its return to Japan. Therefore, territorial disputes emerged between Japan and these nations, posing problems to Japan and these nations.

Japan’s defeat once again re-opened all these disputes. It signed separate peace treaties with all these countries since they refused to the sign the collective San Francisco peace treaty of 8 September 1951
A defeated Japan had no option but to re-start state diplomacy under these severe and tense conditions to negotiate the fate of these Islands, an unfinished agenda of World War II. Japan signed the peace treaty with the Soviet Union in 1956, with the Republic of Korea in 1965, and with the PRC in 1978. These treaties restored bilateral ties between Japan and these countries but the territorial row could not be settled.

Notwithstanding these islands’ dispute, Japan advanced with building economic ties besides offering technical cooperation to these countries. Today, Japanese-Russian trade is worth US$33 billion, Sino-Japanese trade is worth US$312 billion, and Japanese-South Korean trade is worth US$103 billion.

Japan’s energy prospects with Russia are even greater, especially after China-Russia brokered a deal worth US$400 billion to supply gas to China. The post-Fukushima crisis pushed Japan to get the supply of oil and gas from closer Russia than the far-away Middle East, which is now ruffled in political chaos. In the long-run, energy cooperation could ease tension between the two nations.

Russia caters to 10 per cent of Japan’s gas needs. Russia has also proposed the construction of a gas pipeline between Sakhalin and Hokkaido. The Russian oil and gas focus on China and Japan would strengthen ties among these nations as more drift would be expected in Russian relations with Europeans, who also depend on Russian gas.

Apart from the Senkaku /Diaoyu spade, Japan and China are caught in historical constraints that further complicate the resolution of their problems. China is wary of Japanese leaders visits to the wartime Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. For Japan, its war heroes are buried there. For China, Japan’s war criminals are buried there and hence Japanese leaders should be prevented from paying tributes to war criminals. China regards Japanese war atrocities as symbol of militancy. Not only China but South Korea also opposes such tributes by Japanese leaders. This controversy deepens territorial rows among these nations.

“A defeated Japan had no option but to re-start state diplomacy under these severe and tense conditions to negotiate the fate of these Islands, an unfinished agenda of World War II”

As the Japanese nationalised Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2012, the dispute further deepened and emotionalised people in both countries. Japan had valid reasons to nationalise the islands, while China throws historical raison d’être in support of the islands.

These are only increasing and emerging economic bonds that integrate these nations. Once the territorial row is solved or decreased, these nations have the capacity to integrate into greater economic partnerships. Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), an economic bloc, includes Japan, China, and South Korea but excludes Russia. China has more stakes in Russia’s energy in the future and would not allow using the organisation against Russia. Japan has been increasing its share in Russian energy close to its border at Sakhalin. Japan’s closeness to Russia, of course, upsets the Americans and Europeans. President Vladimir Putin wants to visit Japan but Tokyo has put the visit on hold. Japan’s Ukraine policy is a matter of concern for Russia. There is now a possibility that President Putin will visit Japan next year and there will be discussion over the Kuril Islands.

If ties improve between Japan and Russia, it would be difficult to use the TPP against the Russian interests and likewise if this sense prevails, it would ease tensions between Japan, Russia, China, and South Korea. It would create the possibilities for resolution of territorial problems among these nations.

China insists that Japan should recognise that the island is a dispute between them and Japanese leaders should refrain from paying tributes at the Yasukuni Shrine. If these issues are addressed, there is greater prospect for future cooperation between these countries.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISS or of the Government of Pakistan.