New Russian weapons add to simmering tensions over a lingering territorial dispute in Asia

New Russian weapons add to simmering tensions over a lingering territorial dispute in Asia
A Japanese Coast Guard vessel off Cape Nosappu, Japan's easternmost point. The Kuril Islands can be seen in the background, April 14, 2017.REUTERS/Issei Kato
  • Japan's years-long attempt to resolve a century-old territorial dispute with Russia hasn't made progress and remains a source of tension, the top US commander in Japan said this month.
  • Those comments were punctuated by Russia's deployment of an advanced air-defense system to the territory, part of a military build up in the region that's seen as directed at the US and Japan.

Japan's years-long effort to end a longstanding territorial dispute with Russia has been fruitless, the US's top commander in Japan said this month, an assessment underscored by simultaneous military moves by Moscow.

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, "there was an ongoing dialogue" with "about two dozen high-level meetings" aimed at settling the dispute over what Russia calls the Kuril Islands, Air Force Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, commander of US forces in Japan, said at an Air Force Association event on December 1.

"How do I say this diplomatically - there's little to no return on investment in any of those conversations," Schneider added. "So that continues to be a source of tension."

As Schneider spoke, Russia announced the deployment of its advanced S-300V4 air-defense system to the Kurils for combat duty, drawing a formal complaint from Japan.

New Russian weapons add to simmering tensions over a lingering territorial dispute in Asia
A Soviet military monument on Iturup Island, the largest of the disputed Kuril Islands, October 16, 2020.Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images

The dispute over the Kurils, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, dates back more than a century. Russia occupied them at the end of World War II, but Japan still claims the islands. As a result, they have never signed a peace treaty ending that war.


Abe left office in September, and his successor, Yoshihide Suga, spoke to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about the dispute later that month. At the time, Suga said he would "firmly tackle the problem" with Putin, but Suga may not have more success than Abe, whose outreach was repeatedly rebuffed.

"Abe really put a lot of effort into the personal diplomacy with Putin to try to move the needle" on a resolution, said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Smith said Putin "toyed with Abe" by expressing interest in and then spurning the idea of a settlement. A former Russian official described Putin's approach as "trolling."

Abe "probably put too much effort into it, because Putin shifted gears on him repeatedly," Smith told Insider. "There were moments when it should have been pretty clear, I think, to Prime Minister Abe that Putin was not going to lead Russia forward in this."

'Antagonism on all fronts'

New Russian weapons add to simmering tensions over a lingering territorial dispute in Asia
Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia's prime minister, on the Southern Kuril Island of Iturup, August 2, 2019.Reuters

Shorter-range air-defense systems have already been deployed to the Kurils, as have fighter jets and anti-ship missiles, part of a buildup on the islands and across the region.


"There's certainly been accelerated push to build up Russian military power in Eastern Siberia and the Far East," Alexey Muraviev, an expert on Russia's military at Australia's Curtain University, told Insider this summer. "That's evident with accelerated capability upgrades of the Russian Pacific Fleet."

Russia's defense minister said in mid-September that the "military and political situation" in the region "remains tense," but Russia's relations with China have warmed, and the moves are seen as directed at the US and Japan.

Russian and US ships and aircraft have in recent months operated near each other's coasts in the North Pacific, which both see as provocative. Russia is also concerned about the US potentially basing intermediate-range missiles in Japan, as well as Japan's pursuit of the US-made Aegis missile-defense system.

Schneider said Japanese aircraft scramble 300 times a year in response to Russian activity north of Japan, reflecting what Japan's military sees mainly as an "air-defense mission" on its northern frontier, Smith said.

New Russian weapons add to simmering tensions over a lingering territorial dispute in Asia
Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian No. 66 next to Japan Coast Guard patrol ships in the East China Sea.Thomson Reuters

Japan and South Korea also have a dispute over a group of small islands off Japan's west coast - a "latent" dispute, Smith said, but one China and Russia have seized on to stoke tension.


"Prior it was a political bone of contention," Smith said of the dispute, "but now there's this other element to it where the Russians and the Chinese clearly feel they can exploit the differences between the US allies."

Japan faces its most active territorial dispute to the southwest, over the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers but China claims, calling them the Diaoyu Islands.

Beijing has increased its military activity around the islands, and Japan has boosted its military capabilities in response. Japanese aircraft scramble 600 times a year in response to Chinese activity in the area, Schneider said.

"Each of these island disputes have different military dimensions to them, but if you're sitting in Tokyo looking north, looking west, and looking south, you've got antagonism on all fronts," Smith said.

'Coordinated and coalition responses'

New Russian weapons add to simmering tensions over a lingering territorial dispute in Asia
Sailors aboard Japanese helicopter carrier Kaga practice traditional sword fighting while sailing in the Indian Ocean, September 28, 2018.REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Japan has been building up its military and deepening relationships with neighbors to counter external challenges, particularly from China, but headwinds at home add to an already complex situation.


Japan faces "an aging economy and low productivity," Hervé Lemahieu, director of the Power and Diplomacy Program at Australia's Lowy Institute think tank, told Insider in October.

Demographic changes are a particular problem for Japan's military, which struggles to recruit and retain personnel.

"On the other hand, [Japan has] only become more influential in terms of its diplomacy," added Lemahieu. Lowy's most recent Asia Power Index found that Japan "exerts more influence in the region than expected given its available resources" and has made "progress in its regional defence diplomacy."

New Russian weapons add to simmering tensions over a lingering territorial dispute in Asia
British and Japan troops during their first joint exercise at a Japanese military camp, October 2, 2018.REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Under Abe, Japan significantly increased its military spending and reinterpreted its constitution to allow its military "to work closely with [the US] military but also with the militaries of Australia, India, and other partners across the Indo-Pacific," Smith told Insider.

Smith said that there would likely be "a certain amount of momentum" in defense spending under Suga but noted that the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic is not yet fully apparent - for Japan and its rivals.


Japan has handled the pandemic well, "but because a global economic recession now plays into the challenges that Japan already has ... we don't expect Japan to recover until 2027," Lemahieu said.

"The consequences of that economic shock absolutely are going to affect Japanese ability to invest militarily," which likely means Tokyo will emphasize relationships to make its "defense investments go further," Smith said.

"I think that's where you will see the Japanese really move as much as they can to build these coordinated and coalition responses" to security challenges, Smith added.