By Jeroen Gelsing:
August 9, 1945. The day the “Fat Man” atomic bomb destroyed Nagasaki, and the day that – keeping his promise to the Allies – Stalin entered the war against Japan, creating a territorial dispute lasting to this day. Soviet troops advanced quickly and in a matter of weeks captured Sakhalin, the elongated island along Russia’s Pacific Coast, and all of the Kuril Islands, the small islet chain stretching north from Hokkaido. A Soviet proposal for occupation of Hokkaido was rejected by the Allies. Japan escaped Korean-style bifurcation, but the Land of the Rising Sun lay in ruins and surrendered unconditionally on September 2.
Fast forward six years to 1951, and Japan was transformed. The American occupation had broken the power of the military-industrial complex and imposed upon it a pacifist constitution that limited it to maintaining a small self-defence force rather than a fully-fledged army. The United States and Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, and the Land of the Rising Sun returned to self-governance. Reintegration with the world economy followed. A decade later, a tamed Japan led the post-war economic transformation in East Asia.
However, normalisation of relations with the Soviet Union never came. Stalin did not sign the San Francisco Peace Treaty, and the USSR continued to occupy Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. All overtures to end the territorial dispute, including early 21st century attempts, amounted to nothing. Tensions flared intermittently.
Yet since a fortnight ago there has been renewed hope.
Meeting on the side-lines of the APEC forum in Beijing on November 9, Russian president Putin and Japanese PM Abe declared mutual interest in resuming peace treaty talks. Indeed, momentum is swaying in favour of such an agreement. Why now, after 70 years? To answer this question, we should start by examining the Russian rationale lurking behind the extended occupation of the islands.
Setting aside patriotism, Russian territorial possession of Sakhalin would, at first glance, seem to offer little benefit to Moscow. Thousands of miles east of the capital, Sakhalin is frigid, sparsely populated, and separated from the Russian mainland by the Strait of Tartary. However, even in the 1950s and 1960s, before natural gas deposits were discovered there, Sakhalin’s lack of economic value was more than compensated for by its strategic military importance. Japanese control of Sakhalin, even of only the southern half (as before 1945), would completely block Russia’s Pacific Fleet in wartime and prevent global, even regional, naval operations. This is because of the geographic location of Japan’s landmass. Japan is geographically positioned in front of Russia’s south-eastern Pacific seaboard, in a crescent moon-shape. Russia’s Pacific Fleet, anchored at Vladivostok, is based west of Japan, on the Russian mainland bordering China. The open Pacific Ocean is located to the east of Japan. All of the sea straits providing access to the open ocean lie within territory under Japanese control, except for one: the strait at Sakhalin.
So, why “peace talks” now? Arguably, the strategic value of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands has actually increased over time. In the past, Vladivostok was ice-locked for several months a year, greatly complicating Russian Pacific naval operations. However, global warming has reduced the ice levels and transformed Vladivostok into a warm-water port, allowing the Russian fleet to operate in the Far Eastern theatre year-round. This puts it on a par with regional rivals and opens a world of power-projection opportunities. Also, the discovery of enormous natural gas deposits on Sakhalin – the first fields went online in the late 1990s with further oil and gas discoveries at regular intervals since – have cemented Russia’s supply of gaseous and liquid gold on which it so depends.
Yet paired with these developments, a new strategic challenge has arisen. For decades, Soviet military planners regarded the US-Japanese alliance as its primary Far Eastern threat. Hostilities in that theatre were likely to be launched from Japanese territory. But with the much-referenced ‘rise of China’, strategic calculations are shifting. Even Japan and Russia, geopolitical powers in their own right, are anxious over China’s increasing assertiveness in territorial disputes, and the growing clout of its armed forces. Russian ‘bottled up’ fears regarding its navy have not dissipated, but in the scramble for allies to hedge against a resurgent China, Russo-Japanese views of strategic partnership are growing in prominence alongside the classical doctrine of strategic rivalry.
Moscow and Tokyo are finding alignment in other ways too. Both are reinventing their roles in the world. Putin and Abe are both self-styled nationalists aiming to reestablish their countries’ global presence (albeit with widely diverging aims and tactics). Russia appears determined to rebuild its once-esteemed navy, with the annexation of Crimea driven partly by the desire to secure the position of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Abe has repeatedly emphasized his desire to do away with the US-written pacifist constitution, which limits Japan to running self-defence forces. Already, Japan’s defence spending is rising year by year. Chinese military clout is cited as driving Abe’s plans.
In economic affairs, Russia and Japan currently evince a historic degree of interdependency. Sakhalin provides what Japan so desperately needs: cheap gas. Since Japan shut down its nuclear reactors in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, it imports over 90% of its energy, driving its balance of trade deep into deficit and hurting its economic competitiveness. A Sakhalin-Hokkaido pipeline is planned. At the same time, European sanctions over the Crimean annexation have dealt Russian gas exports, on which its wider economy depends, a major blow. It needs all the takers it can get for its Sakhalin gas.
Suddenly, both Japan and Russia have an interest in warming up frigid relations. However, closer ties are hampered by the territorial dispute over Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, which rises to the surface, festering, and standing in the way of economic integration and military cooperation. We are witnessing an historic alignment between Japan and Russia in terms of regional security interests and energy cooperation. Tokyo and Moscow should seize this window of opportunity to sign the peace agreement and formally end World War II. If Japan desists from claiming resource-rich southern Sakhalin and if Russia is receptive to Japanese Kuril demands, there is hope. The realm of international relations is a fickle place: opportunities not seized today may not be available tomorrow. On 9 August 1945, this wisdom drove Stalin into Sakhalin; today, it might drive both sides to sign that elusive piece of paper. It is time to end the legacy of World War II.
Jeroen Gelsing is a PhD candidate in War Studies. His research concerns authoritarianism in East Asia during the Cold War. Jeroen has lived and worked on Taiwan, and published on its international politics. Follow him on twitter here.