The recent visit by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the Kurile islands was unnoticed by the Indian media or our pundits who keep an eagle’s eye on the Asia-Pacific. The point is, Medvedev’s visit bears an uncanny similarity in certain respects with the visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in October 2009 to Arunachal Pradesh — except that this is Medvedev’s second visit. (Medvedev first visited Kurile in his capacity as president in October 2010, which was a historic event because no Russian head of state ever visited the disputed territory that the former Soviet Union ‘acquired’ from Japan at the end of World War II, courtesy the San Francisco Treaty which stipulated that Japan as the defeated power should cede the islands but didn’t say to whom!)
Japan furiously reacted to Medvedev’s 2010 visit and there was speculation that the two countries might even get into a scrap as tempers flared up in Tokyo. In fact, Moscow ordered a beef-up of the military deployments in the Kurile Islands in early 2011. So, when Medvedev repeats the performance in July this year, eyebrows will be raised. There will be no takers for the theory that Medvedev acted irresponsibly
, as a prominent Russian commentator seems to suggest.
Nor is it conceivable that Medvedev is acting independently of President Vladimir Putin on such a crucial front of Russian foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. Russia is an enormously experienced practitioner of international diplomacy.
Obviously, one definite purpose has been served through Medvedev’s second visit : it tested the water again, so to speak. And Moscow would have drawn the conclusion that Tokyo’s reaction was far more restrained this time around. The BBC aptly reported that Japan found Medvedev’s visit irksome
, meaning Tokyo could learn to live with it.
Why is it that Moscow felt it so important to gauge Tokyo’s reaction? The reasons could be more than one. First, Russia is hosting the APEC summit meeting in Vladivostok in September. An accurate measurement of the temperature of Russia-Japan relations will be a useful input for Moscow’s preparations for the APEC summit.
Second, Russia would like to probe how far Japan will consider the Kuriles dispute as an impediment for the advancement of the relations between the two countries. (Japan has still not signed a peace treaty with Russia bringing to a close the World War II legacy.) Russia would welcome Japan’s investment for the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East — intrinsically and as a “balancer”.
A third intriguing factor could be to assess China’s stance. There are stirrings in the air that China is incrementally shifting its traditionally neutral stance on Kuriles issue
in favor of Russia. Now, that is of enormous interest to the future Russian strategies in the Asia-Pacific. Finally, Moscow would have factored in that the China-Japan standoff on maritime disputes has lately deteriorated and Tokyo simply cannot afford two “active” fronts at the same time; besides, post-Fukushima Japan is a far less self-confident nation.
In short, Moscow would have thought this was an opportune moment to push the envelope, so to speak, by asserting Russia’s claim over the Kuriles.
The ‘commonality’ is that like the India-China border dispute, the Kurile Islands dispute will also most certainly remain unresolved for a very long time to come. In a nutshell, the public opinion will not allow an easy resolution of the two disputes.
China was apparently once willing to trade off Arunachal for Aksai Chin in a spirit of give and take. Russia too apparently had hinted in the past that there could be a mutual accommodation whereby it could keep the 2 northern islands while Japan could take back the two southern Kurile islands. But India wasn’t interested — nor was Japan.
They wanted all or nothing and hoped to negotiate from a position of strength. Meanwhile, China has apparently withdrawn its offer. On the other hand, Medvedev’s second visit certainly underscores that any past Russian offer to Japan stands withdrawn today and that the Kurile Islands are an integral part of Russia. Politics is pitiless.