Guest Post: Japan’s Northern Territories: An Opportunity to Impose Multiple Dilemmas on Russia (and China)

Today I am very pleased to introduce another new Lawfire®contributor, Major Alec Rice, of the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps.  Writing in his personal capacity, Major Rice explains to us the history and importance of the Russia-Japan dispute over the Northern Territories.  He warns that as Russia weakens and becomes more dependent upon People’s Republic of China (PRC), the PRC may see opportunity with respect to these lands.  Here’s why he believes it matters (and I agree):

Source: Wikipedia

The U.S., Japan, and like-minded countries should anticipate that the Far East is a key geographical area where the PRC will stealthily but relentlessly make great power strategic moves:  the population is sparse; natural resources abundant; space plentiful; and historical comeuppance to be meted out.  The icing on the cake for the PRC is that Siberia and the Russian Far East, to include the Northern Territories, are important to ensure passage to the North Pacific, the Aleutians, and the Polar Silk Road. 

Ardently and actively supporting the legitimacy of Japan’s claim to the Northern Territories is a foothold for Washington to prevent that outcome.

Get caught up on this issue with Alec’s concise and well-reasoned analysis:

Japan’s Northern Territories:

An Opportunity to Impose Multiple Dilemmas on Russia (and China)

by Major Alec Rice

Introduction:  Ukraine War—Advantage China?

     Since February of 2022 the eyes of the world have been closely focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the minds of many consumed by the impacts of this war on the economy and security of Europe. What is less appreciated, though, is the impact of Russia’s special military operation on its Pacific Far East. 

     As the war in Ukraine unfolds it is crucial for Washington to keep in mind that although three quarters of the Russian population lives west of the Ural Mountains in “European Russia”, three quarters of its vast territory is East of that range—Siberia and the Russian Far East.  Russia’s colossal geographic girth is concentrated in Asia, not Europe.  

     Moreover, Russia has been a Pacific power for hundreds of years, and its Far Eastern frontier is the locus of increased military and economic cooperation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a companion of convenience also harboring its own historical grudges and territorial ambitions.

     Regardless of whether the war in Ukraine ends in outright victory, crushing defeat, or some form of neo-Cold War stalemate, what is apparent is that it is a continuing drain on Russia’s economy and military. 

     This evolving state of affairs is likely to be exploited and eagerly monopolized by Russia’s no limits partner the PRC, unless Washington and Tokyo take notice.

Great Game Maneuver:  The Illegally Occupied Northern Territories

     A strategically advantageous location for the US to concentrate its diplomatic, information, military, economic, finance, intelligence and law enforcement (DIME-FIL) efforts for maximum integrated deterrent effect on both the PRC “pacing challenge” and the Russian “acute threat” are Japan’s Northern Territories—islands in the north of Japan that Russia has illegally occupied since the closing days of World War II. 

     Utilizing shrewd and creative whole-of-government efforts during the current window of strategic opportunity in the North Pacific Theater, a U.S.-Japan Alliance focus on the Northern Territories can confound Russia by fomenting a two-front problem. In so doing, Washington and Tokyo can impose multiple dilemmas on Moscow.

     Applying DIME-FIL pressure on Russia in the Northern Territories can not only debilitate overall Russian economic and military capabilities, but also has the corollary advantage of providing a much-needed check on Russia’s Arctic development of the Northern Sea Route and the Arctic ambitions of the PRC, to include the “Polar Silk Road.”

Russia’s Historical Ambitions for Pacific Power:  Roots of Russo-Japanese Friction

     Russia and Japan have been at geopolitical loggerheads for centuries.  Imperial Russia’s eastward expansion was encroaching upon Japan by the late 17th century, increasingly causing concern to the Shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo).

     The 1855 Treaty of Shimoda established formal Japan-Russia relations, settled the border between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu in the Kuril island chain, and provided for cohabitation of both nations on the island of Sakhalin. In 1875 Russia and Japan negotiated the Treaty of St. Petersburg, in which Japan obtained sovereignty over the entire Kuril Island chain in exchange for its claims to Sakhalin. 

     Russia’s infiltration in the Pacific Far East directly led to Imperial Japan’s rapid colonization of the frontier of the northern island of Hokkaido in the late 19th century, focusing on its settlement and development as a bulwark against Russian Far Eastern expansion. The territorial claims in this region, have been neither amicable nor static over the past one hundred and seventy years. 

     Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japan war in 1905 resulted in Japan obtaining half of the resource-rich island of Sakhalin south of the 50th parallel from Russia under the Treaty of Portsmouth.  Japan named this territory Minami Karafuto, incorporating it into the Empire, and eventually settling over 400,000 residents there by 1941.

World War II to Present:  USSR’s Unwarranted Far Eastern Territorial Appropriation

     The entire Kuril Island Chain and Minami Karafuto were Japanese territory until the Soviet Union abrogated the Japan-USSR neutrality pact and invaded Manchuria, the Kurils, and Minami Karafuto in August 8, 1945 (two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima).

     At the time Joseph Stalin suggested to President Harry Truman that occupation of Hokkaido should be divided between the victorious powers with a demarcation line drawn between the town of Rumoi on the Sea of Japan coast and the port city of Kushiro on the Pacific coast (creating a Soviet monopoly on access from the Sea of Japan to the Sea of Okhotsk)—a suggestion Truman sagely rebuffed. 

     With Japan desperately battling to maintain territorial integrity on its northern frontier, fighting between the Soviet Army and the Imperial Japanese Army in the Kurils continued until September 2, 1945 even though Japan had accepted the unconditional surrender terms of the Potsdam Declaration on August 10, 1945

     With its invasion, the USSR captured Minami Karafuto and the entire Kuril Island Chain from Japan, to include four islands—Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan, and the Habomai Islets, which Japan refers to as the “Northern Territories” and still insists are its sovereign territory.  This disagreement is the core reason Japan and the USSR/Russia have never concluded a formal peace treaty ending World War II.

     In a familiar modus operandi, the USSR forcibly relocated the Japanese residents of the Northern Territories in 1946, importing their own settlers.  Despite Japan’s insistence and decades of negotiation Russia has maintained military occupation of the Northern Territories since its 1945 invasion.

     The USSR’s forcible appropriation of the Northern Territories from Japan blatantly violated the principles of the Atlantic Charter pledging not to seek territorial gains resulting from victory in World War II.  Stalin’s Victory over Japan speech on 2 September 1945, clearly evinced a motive of retribution against Japan for the Russo-Japanese War 40 years prior and a nationalistic pretext for the USSR’s territorial aggrandizement in the Far East, specifically noting the strategic import of the Kuril Island Chain.

 The Strategic Significance of the Northern Territories

     Positioned between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk off Hokkaido’s northeastern coast, the Northern Territories are an invaluable location to ensure freedom of movement for Russia’s Pacific Fleet, in addition to PRC naval ships entering the Pacific from the Sea of Japan via the Soya Strait

     The geopolitical value of the Northern Territories is increasingly relevant in the new era of great power competition. The islands have a new utility in the “post-post Cold War” world as a potentially critical waystation for Russian and PRC shipping from the Sea of Japan as they extend their collective reach into the Aleutians with eyes on the Arctic Region.

     The Northern Territories themselves are spacious:  Kunashiri is larger than the main island of Okinawa, and Etorofu is well over twice the size of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Despite this, they are sparsely populated, with roughly 20,000 people currently residing on these four islands.

     The proximity of the Northern Territories to the mainland of Japan is startling:  the Habomai Islets are only 3.7 km from Hokkaido, and Kunashiri is only 16 km offshore—both are clearly visible with the naked eye from the city of Nemuro in eastern Hokkaido.  The islands are so physically close to mainland Japan that a Russian man defected to Japan in August of 2021 by swimming from Kunashiri to Hokkaido, and Russian military exercises on the islands can be heard and seen from Hokkaido’s east coast.

Russian Militarization of the Northern Territories

     Following a lull after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian military presence in the Northern Territories has been on the rise.  At present the Russian Army’s 18th Machine Gun-Artillery Division is headquartered on Etorofu, and there are estimated to be a total of roughly 3,500 Russian soldiers stationed throughout the islands.  In 2016 Russia deployed its 3K55 Bastion surface-to-ship missiles (SSM) to Etorofu and its 3K60 Bal SSM units to Kunashiri, and in 2020 added S-300VF surface-to-air missiles to Etorofu and Kunashiri.  In addition to weaponry, Russia’s militarization of the Northern Territories in recent years has included an increase in military infrastructure, and even a plan for holiday resort development to incentivize tourism and Russian administrative control

     Furthermore, although smaller in scale than its 2018 iteration, Russia recently conducted the Vostok 2022 military exercises, part of which took place in the Northern Territories.  Of note, however, is that in order to support its war in Ukraine Russia has been dispatching reserve forces out of its Far East through the Tsugaru Straits to Vladivostok for presumable deployment to Ukraine.  The demands for troops and materiel in Ukraine may, over time, sap Russian military strength in the Far East. As the Ukraine War continues, the fringes of Russia’s frontier will be hardest for Moscow to maintain.

The PRC Vulture Waiting in the Northeast Asian Wings

     Although currently increasing military and economic cooperation with Russia in the Far East, the PRC has its own territorial bone to pick regarding Russian mid-19th century East Asian expansion. The PRC party line is that the Qing Dynasty in China was strong-armed by European powers, to include Russia, into the unequal treaties” and the century of humiliation about which it now bitterly complains.

     Amongst these unequal treaties  between Russia and the Qing Dynasty are the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, granting Russia over 600,000 sq. km. of territory in the Far East, and the 1860 Treaty of Beijing, in which Russia obtained land extending to the Sea of Japan.  The subsequent establishment of Vladivostok as a crucial commercial and military port solidified Russia’s enduring Pacific military presence, effectively cutting off the Qing Dynasty from the Sea.

     This historical animus provides additional motivation for the PRC to seek to exploit Russia in the Far East. A nation for whom every event is interpreted through the lens of its own strategic advantage, the PRC is well-poised to capitalize on any signs of a weakening Russia as the war in Ukraine evolves.  As economic sanctions and a prolonged war bite harder upon Russia, it is likely that Russia will become increasingly economically dependent on the PRC, and consequently progressively beholden to Beijing’s will.

     The U.S., Japan, and like-minded countries should anticipate that the Far East is a key geographical area where the PRC will stealthily but relentlessly make great power strategic moves:  the population is sparse; natural resources abundant; space plentiful; and historical comeuppance to be meted out.  The icing on the cake for the PRC is that Siberia and the Russian Far East, to include the Northern Territories, are important to ensure passage to the North Pacific, the Aleutians, and the Polar Silk Road. 

     Ardently and actively supporting the legitimacy of Japan’s claim to the Northern Territories is a foothold for Washington to prevent that outcome.

Mustering Support for Japan’s Recovery of the Northern Territories

     The US has officially supported Japan’s claim to the Northern Territories since 1956. This position was publicly reaffirmed by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emmanuel on 7 February 2022, Japan’s “Northern Territories Day,” in which he drew analogies between Russia’s then-impending invasion of Ukraine and the illegal ongoing occupation of the Northern Territories by Russia.

     Significantly, President Volodymor Zelenskyy recently officially proclaimed Ukraine’s support for Japan’s claim to the islands, which was subsequently adopted by the Ukrainian Parliament. Public pronouncements such as these, drawing parallels to Russia’s bogus territorial claims and unjustified invasion of Ukraine, can strongly sway US and international public opinion to support Japan’s position on the Northern Territories. 

     Japan has patiently, painstakingly, but fruitlessly engaged in negotiations with Russia (and the USSR) for nearly 70 years regarding the Northern Territories. Following Japan’s participation in sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, Russia summarily broke off peace negotiations with Japan to end World War II and settle the status of the islands.

     It is time for Washington, and the entire international community, to encourage Tokyo to bring this East Asian territorial dispute from the bilateral sphere to the international stage. Although in October of 1972 Japan suggested submission of the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for resolution, the USSR refused this proposal. Japan should vociferously advocate again for submission of the matter to the ICJ, demonstrating that it is taking all methods available to peacefully resolve the dispute.

     On the international front, Washington can support Japan, and weaken Russia, by adamantly championing the legitimacy of Japan’s sovereignty of the Northern Territories and underwriting Japanese action.

     Beyond a concerted diplomatic and media push, there are a variety of methods, both indirect and direct, the US could use to provide support to Japan, while at the same time confounding the acute threat of Russia and thwarting the PRC pacing challenge in the Russian Far East.  These could include not only further increasing military exercises with the US forces in nearby Hokkaido, but also future US-Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) bilateral basing of surface-launched intermediate range missiles there as a strengthened operational deterrent and as an opportunity for deterrence by detection.

     In exercising this option, the US-Japan alliance could perfunctorily respond to the inevitable complaints from Russia and the PRC about basing within Japan by cautioning them not to “interfere in internal matters.”

Geographic Distance Does Not Mean Strategic Disconnection

     Both the US and Japan can proactively shape the 21st century world rather than being simply passively molded by it.  What is required, however, is recognizing the sometimes less-than-obvious locations where strategic opportunities arise and having the wherewithal to press the advantage.

     It stands to reason that if Okinawa can host 26,000 US military and 8,200 JSDF permanently stationed personnel, the Northern Territories could host a similar number of troops acting as a strategic deterrent and observation force for Russian and PRC naval activity and passage to the North Pacific and the Arctic. 

     Alternatively, the islands could garrison a similar number of PRC and/or Russian troops sealing off the sea lane to the Sea of Okhotsk and fiercely guarding the pathway of the Kurils, the Aleutians, the Bering Sea, and the Arcto-Pacific, thereby expanding the authoritarian sphere of influence in the North Pacific.

      It is to both Washington and Tokyo’s advantage to encourage and enable Japan’s security role as Asia’s gatekeeper to the Pacific by both the southern route in the vicinity of Okinawa and the northern routes surrounding Hokkaido.  As the fourth largest island nation in the world, it is incumbent on Japan to use the entirety of its geography, to include the Northern Territories, to its maximum security benefit. 

    By encouraging Tokyo and cooperating in a multifaceted campaign condemning Russia’s longstanding, unjustified illegal occupation of Japanese sovereign territory the US-Japan alliance can send a powerful and meaningful message to Russia, the PRC, and the entire international community, while also deterring these totalitarian regimes. 

     Russian activity in Ukraine is an all-too-familiar pattern of behavior that is not limited to the European theater. In East Asia as well Russia’s continuing illegal occupation of the Northern Territories is a similarly intolerable destabilizing threat to the international order worthy of the world’s attention and condemnation.

     The US, Japan, and the international community have rediscovered what they knew in a previous age—Russia is a nation unworthy of trust.  The US should proactively support and encourage comprehensive, novel, and wide-ranging means for Japan to recover the Northern Territories.  Russia’s ongoing commitment to its invasion of Ukraine may be creating a geopolitical opportunity in the Far East. If Washington and Tokyo miss the chance to capitalize on the situation, the PRC assuredly will not.

About the Author

Major Alec Rice is an active-duty Judge Advocate in the U.S. Army. He is a graduate of the 66th Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Command and General Staff Course and formerly the Chief of National Security Law for U.S. Forces, Japan.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect my views or those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  See also here.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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