“Diplomats are honest people sent out to lie for their country”. Ever heard that particular turn of phrase? I hadn’t, but it’s apparently quite well-known in political circles, and I can’t deny it has a nice ring to it. Anyway, La Russophobe has raised an interesting issue, albeit in her usual angry, watch-me-spin-my-head-around-on-my-shoulders manner. The dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands has been dragging on for decades, will perhaps drag on for decades more, and resurfaced in print yesterday in the form of a Moscow Times article that LR simply copied and pasted. Nothing unusual in that: when I cite references I certainly don’t type them out by hand. What I’m referring to is the sociopathic, hamfisted journalistic style that sees the original headline (“Russia’s Lost Opportunity With Japan”) transposed to the barking mad, snapping-at-the-moon La Russophobe version; “Russian Barbarism and Failure in Japan”. Not to mention her regular yammering about how much hard work blogging is, as she dares everybody to try it. Maybe I’m missing something, but copying and pasting just doesn’t look like that much work to me.
Well, if your acquaintance is a lengthy one, you’ll know that “barbarism” is one of her favourite buzzwords when applied to Russia. “Failure” is another; likewise “humiliation”. If you follow the links to the references, you often find no mention of any such terms. They are an invention spawned in the blasted lunar landscape that is La Russophobe’s mind, and relate to her panting hatred of Russia and all things Russian – and nothing else.
Still, it can’t do any harm to examine the issue; we might learn something. For starters, let’s look at Russo-Japanese trade; both headlines seem to suggest this relationship is imperiled by Russia’s recalcitrant refusal to simply hand the islands back to Japan, scuff the dirt with their toe and mumble, “sorry”. I’d be surprised if that were true, considering (a) Russia’s status as a net energy exporter, (b) Japan’s status as a net energy importer, and (c) the length of time this has been in dispute while energy demand goes inexorably up and energy supply inexorably weakens.
And I’d apparently not be far wrong. Look at that; business with Japan is going up, not down. Not just in oil and gas, either, the commodities you immediately think of when somebody says, “energy”, but nuclear power as well. Some readers might be surprised to learn Japan’s trade with Russia in uranium (Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer) has gone from 1% total consumption in 2006 to 14% only two years later. All the demographics associated with a solid business relationship; imports, exports and trade turnover, show a healthy upward trend. Japan is the world’s third-largest producer of nuclear power (after the USA and France), mostly owing to a scarcity of other national energy supplies. A few more quick facts; Japan is the second-largest importer of crude oil and the largest importer of natural gas in the world. Oil accounts for almost half of Japan’s daily energy consumption, although nuclear power is beginning to make gains (Note: Japan’s oil consumption has been more or less stable during the 2000’s). Roughly 90%, certainly a decisive majority of Japan’s oil imports come from the Middle East. Japan got quite a scare in that regard back in 1973, and is looking to diversify away from this supply source. Who stands to benefit from that interest? That’s right: “Japan is currently looking towards Russia, Central Asia, and Africa in order to geographically diversify its oil
imports and promote domestic energy security.”
But why does Russia want to hang onto these islands, anyway? Why not just let them go? There are a couple of reasons. One, Japan kicked Russia’s ass in the Russo-Japanese war; it was embarrassing, and it probably still stings a bit. Two, the sea around the Kuril islands is swarming with fish and other marine biological assets; hey, isn’t there a nation right alongside that eats fish like they heard it was going to be outlawed tomorrow? Why, yes, there is. Three, the possibility of future oil and gas exploration. Four, national defense; access to the high seas for Russia’s Pacific Fleet depends on those straits, and ceding control of the Southern Kurils would in turn cede control of access to the Sea of Okhotsk to a foreign nation.
But what it boils down to in the end is, why should they? Is there recent historical precedent for a nation to mount an aggressive defense out of all proportion to sovereign value, over a couple of islands? Why, yes; there is, and their name started with “B” and ended with “n” and had “ritai” in the middle. What’d it cost the United Kingdom to keep the Falklands? Well, added to the approximately 2.7 Billion British pounds, it cost 255 men, 6 ships and 34 combat aircraft. Was it worth it? You’d have to ask them, but Maggie Thatcher would certainly say it was, since it got her reelected. Hopefully the dispute over the Kurils won’t come to that.
The legal wrangling has gone back and forth, and the predominant tactic seems to be that every time an agreement shows Japan as having renounced her claim to the Kurils, they argue, no, no, I didn’t mean that agreement : I meant Yalta, or Potsdam or whatever. However, what is unambiguous is that Japan renounced any claim to those islands in San Francisco in 1951. Vladimir Putin offered to return the Southern islands in 2005, which looks fairly generous considering he had no legal obligation to do so, but Japan wants the whole enchilada, and the remaining two islands are the largest.
The Kurils were promised to the Soviet Union at Yalta in 1945, as a condition of Moscow’s entry into the war against Japan. The wording of that agreement, and the later one at Potsdam, appears to have been maddeningly vague, as if the future disagreement was intended to happen. But the San Francisco agreement was airtight, and Japan signed and ratified it.
However it turns out, what will not be a casualty will be the business relationship between Russia and Japan. Not as long as (a) Japan needs oil, (b) Russia has oil, and (c), the two are geographically co-located.