x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Harsh and remote islands set Russia and Japan on collision course

The Southern Kurils to Russians, the Northern Territories to Japanese, four rugged islands in the North Pacific captured by Russia in 1945 are still being argued over today, not least because of their potential energy reserves and lucrative fishing grounds.

BEIJING // The Kuril Islands, stretching between Russia's far eastern peninsula and northern Japan, are unlikely to be rated as one of the most appealing parts of the world in which to live.

Extreme weather and volcanic activity have at times made the archipelago so inhospitable that its 8,000-year history of human habitation is currently the subject of a study into how humankind survives at the world's outer margins.

Yet, for all their apparent unattractiveness, part of the archipelago is at the centre of an intensifying tug of war between Russia and Japan.

The four southernmost islands, known as the South Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, have been controlled by Moscow since the Second World War, much to Tokyo's chagrin.

While isolated, underdeveloped and with a population of just 30,000 Russians, the four islands have potential energy reserves and lucrative fishing grounds, both of which Russia is keen to utilise on a greater scale.

In November, the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, paid a surprise visit to one of the four, the first trip to the islands by any Russian or Soviet leader.

Tension over the islands soured a meeting this month between the Japanese and Russian foreign ministers, Seiji Maehara and Sergei Lavrov.

The island dispute has continued to prevent Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty after the Second World War. According to Moscow, accords approved the transfer of the islands to Russian control, while Tokyo insists they remain Japanese, arguing that they are not part of the Kurils.

Shortly before the foreign ministers met, Mr Medvedev said that Russia would strengthen defences on the islands and deploy new amphibious assault ships in its Pacific Fleet, partly to defend the islands. Russia has also indicated it will improve the backward infrastructure and suggested the islands could host a free-trade zone to attract foreign investment.

Bhubhindar Singh, an assistant professor at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies who specialises in north-east Asian security, said these moves reflected the fact that Russia was "increasingly becoming involved and engaged in the Asia-Pacific".

"This has been a result of the new focus on Asia," he said. "Russia doesn't want to be left out of the growing emphasis on Asia in economic and security issues. Russia is looking to expand its economic interests in the region, in terms of taking advantage of the fact there's an increased demand for Russian resources and energy."

Similarly, Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong, said Russia was keen to "demonstrate it's a Pacific power".

"It [wants to show it] has a definite interest in the Pacific despite that you have a dwindling population in the Russian Far East and [little] investment.

"The Russian president wants to show Russia is interested in the resources in the region and will try to spend money and attract investment."

Mr Medvedev was also keen, Mr Cheng suggested, to demonstrate nationalist credentials ahead of the next Russian presidential election, which aids have indicated he is keen to contest.

Earlier this month the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, upped the ante by branding Mr Medvedev's visit an "unforgivable outrage". Observers have suggested the Japanese prime minister is stoking nationalist sentiment to help reverse a meltdown in public support that has seen approval ratings plunge below 20 per cent.

Few therefore think agreement over the islands is likely.

Mr Cheng said: "Given that you have rising nationalism on both sides, a very weak government in Japan, presidential elections coming in Russia and a general escalation of tensions in the region because of various territorial issues, I expect quite a bit of posturing and strong statements, and no progress on negotiations," Mr Cheng said.

For those studying the islands, the diplomatic row is secondary to finding out why and how humans live there.

The Kuril islands are known for their long and cold winters and severe storms, and in the islands in dispute the difficulties of life extend beyond the climate. The fishing industry on which much of the population relies fails to provide anything more than a very basic living.

The researcher, Ben Fitzhugh, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, was quoted in his university's newsletter this week as saying some of the islands in the chain could help "identify the limits of adaptability, or how much resilience people have".

"We're looking at the islands as a yardstick of humans' capacity to colonise and sustain themselves," he said of the central and northern islands he is studying.

dbardsley@thenational.ae