The first two of Russia’s new Assault Carriers, the French-designed Mistral Class, will allegedly be based in or near the Kuril Islands, the disputed island chain that Japan keeps forgetting they don’t own any more. The ships will likely be named something else when they commission in Russian service, but for now they retain the name the French gave them, which is taken from the cold, dry northerly wind that blows on the Southern coast of France in the winter months. And indeed, a cool wind on the fevered brows of the armchair strategists at the Jamestown Foundation would be welcome. Yes, once again the Kurils dispute that will not die resurfaces, stirred up by the folks who see reason for alarm in Russia’s continued resolve to guard what belongs to them – and they think you should be sweating, too.
For some reason, the notion that Russia intends to abide by a territorial agreement that was struck by – among others - the United States at the close of the Second World War is anaethma now in some quarters of the United States. Russia should give the islands back to Japan, because….well, if we’re honest, because Japan proved satisfied with U.S. dominance and did not kick over the apple-cart again, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt feared they might. Yes, Japan once claimed the Kurils. However, when President Roosevelt drew up his grand strategy for the furtherance of American aims in the Pacific, he believed Japan needed to be contained. At the same time, he believed Russia under Stalin and the USA had a future together in the region, and desired that the partnership should outlive the war. The Kurils were promised to the Soviet Union at Yalta in 1945. The USA is a signatory to the Potsdam Declaration, which granted the Kurils to the Soviet Union. In case that wasn’t enough, Japan renounced all claim to them in 1951, in the San Francisco Peace Treaty with the Allied Powers. But the fiction persists that Japan didn’t really understand what it was “giving away”, and intended all along that Iturup and Kunashir were not included in the agreement. That’s odd, because Mr. Kumao Nishimura – head of the Foreign Ministry Treaties Bureau – responded to a direct question in the Diet on October 19th that same year that Iturup (Etorofu) and Kunashir (Kunashiri) were understood to be included in the agreement. His remarks are a matter of historical record.
President Putin announced his willingness to visit Tokyo in 2005 with a promise to return to Japan the Habomai Islets and Shikotan Islands. Tokyo said “no deal”, unless Etorofu and Kunashiri were included.
Before we get into the ridiculous notion that basing of two Assault Carriers in the vicinity constitutes a bold Russian grab at regional sea control, let’s pause to consider the legal implications overall. Japan surrendered unconditionally, and allowed the United States and its allies to redefine Japan’s territorial boundaries. A country that surrenders unconditionally following a military conflict has, under international law, no legal continuity. This means Japan the nation that emerged from the postwar agreements is not the same Japan the militant aggressor that entered into the war, and is not the juridical successor to titles held by the former nation. Unconditional surrender, under international law, implies dissolution of the defeated state with consequent loss of sovereignty, and future settlement conditions are determined at the pleasure of the victors by common agreement. The will of the victors was made abundantly clear at Yalta and in the Potsdam Declaration.
Just before we leave the legalities, I’d like to point out that President Roosevelt was not only unambiguous in his plans for containment of postwar Japan; present-day Japan should consider itself lucky he didn’t go further, as he initially intended. The Japanese also almost lost the Ryukyu Islands to China, as we read in the the February 1991 issue of the Pacific Historical Review, Vol 60 No. 1 (pg. 76/77);
“Roosevelt sought to satisfy Russian security interests in Northeast Asia as part of his larger Soviet policy. Intent on building a working relationship with Stalin that would survive after the war, Roosevelt saw no reason to quarrel over the future of the Kurils. Moreover, Soviet possession of the islands also fitted into his plans for postwar Japan. FDR planned to preserve the peace by surrounding the defeated Axis powers with military bases. In Asia, this meant depriving Japan of the Kurils. In dealing with Japan, questions of legal title and sovereign rights did not interfere with Roosevelt’s plans for postwar security.
FDR also wanted the Ryukyu Islands placed under Chinese custody, even though Japan’s sovereignty over the islands had been recognized internationally since the 1870′s.”
That seems a bit cheeky on America’s part, just swaggering around redrawing the geography to suit itself. After all, Japan owned those islands free and clear. Oh, wait – it didn’t. Not only did the Ryukyu Islands once have a traditional alliance with China, Japan’s ownership of them (following conquest) resulted from a ruling by – guess who? Yes, that’s right, the USA. From the footnotes in the same reference cited above; “Ulysses S. Grant ruled annexation in Japan’s favor in 1879, although the Ryukyuan King begged not to be separated from China”.
Well, that’s enough dusty history; let’s get with the now. At the authoritative Russian Military Reform blog, Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg sends Mr. Felgenhauer’s strategery home in tears, saying, “There are so many things wrong with this analysis, I’m not sure where to begin”. He’s right, and there’s no sense in my repeating the entire scolding here; the Mistrals are troop carriers and helicopter assault supporters, and while they are a nice piece of hardware and a badly-needed addition to the Russian fleet, the premise that they destabilize the region is just laughable. They couldn’t go near any enemy combatants without a bristling escort, because they are weak in self-defense capability (as is, although that deficiency may well be remedied by retrofit on the part of the new owners). Besides, they’re going to…what? Launch a beachhead assault against the U.S. forces based in Japan? Ha, ha…whew, my ribs were starting to hurt a little. As I mentioned in my comment to Dr. Gorenburg’s article, Mr. Felgenhauer must rate the capabilities of the Russian fighting man very highly indeed if approximately 3,500 of them could strike fear into the hearts of Japan-based US forces that outnumber them ten to one. The USA currently has about 35,000 military personnel distributed throughout 61 bases and stations in Japan. The forward-based USN Seventh Fleet at Yokusuka includes a nuclear Aircraft Carrier, a Command & Control ship, and their screen of a pair of cruisers and 7 destroyers. An Assault Carrier, 3 tank and support vehicle landing ships and a handful of Minesweepers are just a whistle away at Sasebo.
As you almost always find, politics is more the driving force behind this manufactured controversy than anything else. Japanese Prime Minister Kan’s national approval rating is sucking bog water at down around 20%: he has nothing to lose and perhaps much to gain by a campaign to stir up Japanese nationalism. I have a good deal of respect for the political grasp of the average Japanese citizen, and I can’t imagine them being fooled in great numbers, but you never know; it’s probably worth a try. It suits the American Right to keep the dispute front-page or close to it, in their ongoing campaign to keep the Medvedev/Putin government off balance and on the defensive. That, too, is unlikely to get much traction, as their national approval ratings make those of Kan look pretty sick, and they have absolutely nothing to lose by a continued display of resolve and poltical will.
There’s one more factor in play. We’ve discussed before this the growing untenability of American military facilities based in Japan generally and on Okinawa particularly. Some might be surprised to learn they cost Japan a good deal of money, under the status-of-forces agreement with the United States. And though those based in Japan generally behave themselves and contribute significantly to the economy, there’s just something about having foreign military forces a constant presence in the population that implies a lingering loss of self-determination and freedom. I’m not arguing that Japan didn’t bring it on itself, or that the USA was wrong to overthrow Japan, because that’s not so. But with all the rhetoric about democracy and free will, a continued occupation is difficult to justify as protection for a country that has an extremely powerful and capable military in its own right. The move of the U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam, currently under discussion, would seem to bear this out.
In that discussion, I mentioned that the U.S. Navy might be looking for a new location for its forward-based naval units. A good place might be Iturup or Kunashir. Unlikely? Maybe – but the USA once thought it’d be an awesome idea. Once again from the Pacific Historical Review; “The Kurils also appeared in the JCS’s (Joint Chiefs of Staff) plans for postwar bases. In January 1944, a Joint Post War Committee study listed a base in the Kurils as “essential”, the highest designation given to prospective bases”.
Mr. Felgenhauer and his
cronies colleagues at the Jamestown Foundation hope the smell of smoke will lead the ignorant to believe there must be fire. It’s a good thing you’re not ignorant.