Towards The Arctic Ocean through the Kuril Islands

Dmitry TulupovFaculty of International Relations of St. Petersburg State University

There has been no time in modern history when political links between Moscow and Tokyo were friendly or partner-like. Since the end of WWII, the Southern Kuril Islands remain the key irritant to their bilateral relations. As a result, much of the potential for Russian-Japanese cooperation remains untapped, even as this cooperation gains ever more new facets, including the issue of the Arctic Ocean. What is Japan doing in the Arctic Ocean? Is it possible to leverage potential cooperation in that region to resolve the territorial dispute?

Japan’s Initial Steps in the Arctic Ocean

Of all the foreign states that have displayed some interest in the Arctic Ocean, Japan has been one of the first to demonstrate its ambitions to develop the region. It was in 1987, immediately after Gorbachev’s speech in Murmansk when the President of the USSR proposed turning the Arctic Ocean into a zone of peace and cooperation. From the outset, Japan’s focus on the region was due to the transit potential of the Northern Sea Route, which offered new opportunities for optimizing Japanese exports to Europe. Its practical outcome was the active involvement of two leading Japanese entities, the Nippon Foundation and the Ocean Policy Research Foundation, together with Norway and Russia, in the International Northern Sea Route Programme (INSROP).

The stated purpose of the programme was to conduct a comprehensive study of the prospective use of Russian Arctic shipping lanes by foreign shippers. Remarkably, all INSROP costs were covered by the Nippon Foundation: between June 1993 and March 1999 the expenses amounted to USD 13 million [1]. The INSROP expertise and practical results prompted Japanese entities to launch a follow-up project, JANSROP Phase II. This project, implemented in 2002–2005, was to conduct an extensive study of the eastern sector of the Russian Arctic and Russia’s Far East. Its outcome was a geographical information system of data on the natural resources, climate and geography of the study area.

Japan’s Arctic Strategy

In the late 2000s, based on the knowledge generated by the above programmes, the Japanese government proceeded to formulate the conceptual framework of its Arctic policies. Extra impetus was added by the fact that other interested parties were busy developing their own Arctic strategies (Norway became a trail-blazer, approving its government strategy for the Arctic Ocean in December 2006). On 2nd September 2010 the Japanese Foreign Office set up its Arctic task force. It was charged with a comprehensive examination and monitoring of changes in the region in a number of areas: economy, security, environment and international maritime law. Early in 2012, efforts to develop a diplomatic strategy for the Arctic Ocean were given a boost by the Japan Institute of International Affairs. It launched a research project, “Arctic Governance and Japan’s Diplomatic Strategy”, and its results are expected to be published in 2013.

Polar naval routes seem to be the focal point of Japan’s interests in the region, and this is expected to be appropriately reflected in future Arctic strategy. According to Commander Takahiro Ishihara, a distinguished Japanese expert on maritime policy, Japan needs to decide whether, it will pursue freedom of navigation in the Arctic Ocean together with the US, or accept Russia and Canada’s demands to pay levies on Arctic passage. Commander Ishihara also believes that it is imperative for Japan as a maritime nation to be actively engaged in international Arctic policies at the rule-setting stage, and it is therefore extremely important that it obtain permanent status in the Arctic Council.

Japanese media (in particular, Yomiuri Shimbun) have been saying lately that Japan has been postponing its entry into the grand Arctic game for too long. Yet playing that game could bring substantial gains for the national economy. Japan has been lagging behind, particularly by comparison with diplomatic efforts by extra-regional players (China in particular), who are striving to increase their influence in the Arctic Ocean.

Arctic Leverage for the Kuril Issue

The South Kuril territorial dispute remains the most painful issue in Russian-Japanese relations. Without its final resolution, bilateral cooperation will stay at an unacceptably low level. Russian diplomacy needs to develop a totally different vision, the realization of which will help Japan accept Russia’s sovereignty over all of the Kuril Archipelago, including the disputed islands. It must be developed based on the following presuppositions. Firstly, it is essential to remove any political or emotional charge, which Japan has been deliberately emphasizing, from the negotiations; secondly, the debates on the Kuril issue should be held on a strictly rational basis; and thirdly, the scope of negotiations should be expanded by offering Japan some new bargaining chips.

The proposals should offer Japan strategic advantages that could potentially outweigh any desire in Tokyo to insist on its sovereignty over the Southern Kuril Islands. The Russian Arctic seas could be one common denominator to be introduced in the discourse of the Russian-Japanese negotiations. The Arctic region is undoubtedly a long-term strategic priority for Japanese foreign policy. Developing Arctic resources could give Japan unique opportunities for moving its national economy out of the depression caused by the global economic crisis of 2008 and the great earthquake of 2011.

Based on the above criteria, the following bargaining chips could be offered.

1. Granting Japanese shipping companies exclusive, beneficial terms and conditions for the use of the NSR, unavailable to shippers from other interested parties. Specifically, the pilotage and ice-breaking levies could be reduced to a purely symbolic level.

2. Arranging transportation over the NSR of nearly 900 tons of vitrified highly radioactive waste (HRW) accumulated at the Sellafield facility in the UK and the HRW storage facility at Rokkasho (Japan). Originally, the process was to be completed by 2018 [2]. However, the HRW shipments were already delayed when the 2012 voyage was called off due to suspicions of a leaking container. This will inevitably cause delays to a project already associated with ongoing reputational risks both for the Japanese and British governments (because of environmental criticism and sanctions from the littoral states exposed to nuclear waste shipments) [3]. This means that both countries would want to see HRW transportation completed as soon as possible, and thus NSR transit potential acquires particular relevance. By suggesting the new route, the Russian party, through its Sovcomflot, for instance, could transport all of the waste and resolve this painful issue. It would also serve to demonstrate that the Russian transport industry is capable of complying with the high environmental standards of doing business in the Arctic seas.

3. There is another alternative, which, although not related to the Arctic Ocean, could be a stand-by bargaining chip. This is the option of an agreement between Russia and Japan on mutual assistance which would help strengthen Japan’s position in terms of military security. It could also be used by Tokyo as a new instrument for minimizing military and political risks in Asia Pacific, particularly in the face of the persistent nuclear threat from North Korea and worsening relations with China over the Senkaku Islands. For this move not to be perceived as unfriendly, Russia could offer (or reaffirm, if present) similar military security safeguards to Beijing and Pyongyang. The result will be a sophisticated system of interdependence, where Russia will act as a security guarantor for each of the above countries, and will always remain an arbiter, taking no sides and preventing any escalation of tension among the players simply through its presence.

1. Hand M. Japanese Seek New Route to Escape Piracy // Business Times, 07.01.1999.

2. Canisters of HLW Being Inspected in Preparation for Return to Japan // Nuclear Fuels. Vol. 34. № 23. 16.11.2009. P. 9.

3. UK and Japan Launch Inquiry into Contaminated Containers // Nuclear Fuels. Vol. 36. № 22. 31.10.2011.

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