Those of you who follow East Asian politics probably know about the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands. The Japanese are also involved in several other land disputes as well. One of these areas is the Russia controlled Kuril Islands:
The Russian Air Force last week took joint control of a newly operational airport in the disputed Northern Territories, in a sign that Moscow is digging in over the islands.
On Tuesday the Russian government assigned a dual civilian-military role to Iturup Airport on the island of Etorofu, clearing the way for the deployment of warplanes, drones and command systems at the facility. The airport’s 2.3-kilometer-long runway could handle such giant aircraft as the Boeing 747 or Russia’s largest cargo planes carrying midweight loads.
Japan’s top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, expressed concern Friday over the move.
“We’ve said through diplomatic channels that it goes against our country’s position,” Suga said at a news conference in Tokyo. “We’re gathering information on the Russian military’s behavior in the Northern Territories.”
The move appears to fit a pattern of Moscow’s militarization of the isles and of the broader Kuril chain. A series of recent developments have presented new headaches and humiliations for Japan as it seeks to regain control of the lost land.
In 2016, anti-ship missile batteries were deployed on the islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri, a Russian naval newspaper reported. In May 2017, Russia’s eastern military command announced an armament upgrade for an artillery division on the southern Kurils, including drones.
And in October 2017 a senior member of a Russian Upper House defense committee was quoted saying plans are underway to build a naval port in the Kurils for large warships such as cruisers and nuclear submarines. The Russian Ministry of Defense has pointed to the remote volcanic island of Matua as a possible location for such a base.
The Kuril Islands are a small archipelago of islands off the northeastern coast of Hokkaido. They are between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk, and they extend northward all the way to the coast of Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula. The islands are very remote, and sparsely populated by a small number of Russians who make a living mainly through fishing.
The ownership of these islands has been disputed for many years, with some of the islands frequently changing hands between Japan and Russia. In World War II, Soviet forces invaded the island chain after the Americans defeated Japan, and expelled all the Japanese living in the region. Russia has controlled the region ever since.
The Japanese and the Russian governments have made several attempts to resolve the dispute but they have not succeeded. Shinzo Abe was making the latest attempt at wooing the Russians and allowing for Japanese investment in the islands, as well as allowing for visitation by the people who had been expelled in World War II.
Unfortunately, despite Abe’s efforts, Russia has grown increasingly hostile toward Japan. As I wrote last year, Russia has begun “buzzing” Japan with bombers. The moving of military hardware into the Kuril Islands is yet another example of Russian military aggression for Japan to worry about.
I remain convinced that if a major interstate war breaks out in the next decade, it’s going to be in East Asia and most likely will result from either an attack on Japan or the North Korea problem no longer being able to be contained.