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Heating up in the Pacific? Tokyo should launch naval blockade of disputed Russian Kuril Islands, ex-Japanese Moscow envoy insists

Heating up in the Pacific? Tokyo should launch naval blockade of disputed Russian Kuril Islands, ex-Japanese Moscow envoy insists
More than 75 years since fighting stopped, a still-active WWII-era conflict over a Pacific Island archipelago could see Russian and Japanese warships face off once again in a struggle for control, if one ex-diplomat gets his way.

Akio Kawato, a political scientist who once served as Tokyo’s deputy chief envoy in Moscow, as well as ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, urged his country to show it was capable of shutting off supplies to the Russian-controlled Kuril Islands in order to ensure its claims are taken seriously.

In an article published in Newsweek, he argued that, “in order for the Russian authorities to realize the importance of solving the territorial problem,” the Japanese government should show its willingness and ability to block the two main straits which act as supply routes between the mainland of Russia and the four islands Tokyo claims. It would increase pressure on Moscow to reach a settlement, he argued, if the Kremlin saw that these passages “can be closed at any time.”

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However, Kawato argues in the piece, billed as a playbook for negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that Japan’s best chance of regaining the islands comes when its northern neighbor’s power declines significantly, as it did in the 1990s. However, he concedes, since 2001, Russia has regained power because of its increasing GDP and its response to perceived threats from NATO. Instead of outright conflict, “you should avoid unnecessarily turning Russians, who love Japanese food and culture, and appreciate Japanese cars, into enemies.”

Any naval blockade of the Kuril Islands by Japanese vessels would likely either be ignored by the Russian navy, which doesn’t recognize Tokyo’s jurisdiction in the region, or be met with force. Even as part of a strategy to put pressure on diplomatic talks, the move would be seen as a dangerous escalation internationally.

The waters around the archipelago have in the past been a flash point for tensions, and in 2006, a Japanese fisherman was shot dead in the conflict’s first fatality for 50 years. However, under plans designed to ease ill-feeling, Moscow and Tokyo agreed to allow Japanese citizens, including those descended from islanders, to visit the Kurils visa-free. The East Asian nation’s vessels are also allowed to catch fish in Russian waters around the archipelago.

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On Thursday, two Russian strategic missile Tu-95MS bombers flew over the Sea of Japan and around the north-western part of the Pacific Ocean. Japanese F-15 fighter jets were reportedly scrambled to monitor their flightpath.

Russia insists that the 1945 Yalta Agreement, signed by the Allies in WWII, guarantees it sovereignty over the islands. The US, which underwrote the treaty and even helped equip Red Army troops to take the islands, has since changed its policy and supports the Japanese claims.

The comments drew criticism from Dmitry Novikov, the Deputy Chairman of the International Affairs Committee in Russia’s parliament. According to him, the calls were another example of Japanese politicians and commentators seeking to “exacerbate the problem of what they call the northern territories.” "This happens periodically ...there is nothing new in this situation,” he said, pointing to constitutional amendments made last year that prohibit the handing over of any part of Russia’s territory.

In December, Sapporo-based newspaper Hokkaido Shimbun reported that the US State Department considers anyone born on the four southernmost islands to be Japanese citizens, despite much of the population being made up of ethnic Russians.

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