Russia and China against Japan for dominance in the Pacific
by Pino Cazzaniga
Medvedev's visit to the Kuril Islands ("Northern Territories" for Japanese) seems a premeditated act of electoral motivation, but also to create difficulties for Tokyo, in agreement with Beijing. Economic and military influence of Japan and United States in the Far East at stake.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - Moscow and Beijing appear allied against Japan to reduce its influence in the Pacific, while Tokyo is forced to forge closer ties with the United States. In November Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the island of Kunashiri, north-east of Hokkaido, prompting vigorous protests from the government in Tokyo. The island together with those of Shikotan, Etorofu and the Habomai islets is a region known in Japan as the "Northern Territories". Medvedev is the first Russian president to set foot on that land. The four islands were invaded by the Soviet army between August 28 and September 2, 1945, at the end of World War II.

Medvedev’s diplomatic day trip

Medvedev made the visit to the island on his return trip from Hanoi (Vietnam), where together with other leaders, including Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, he had attended an enlarged meeting of ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations).

Having landed on the island of Sakalin, he made a detour on his return trip, to reach via jet plane the island of Kunashiri. The visit lasted a few hours, but the places he visited and the statements he made are likely to cause concern in Japanese diplomatic circles.

The president behaved as if he were at home: he has examined a geothermal installation, built by the Russians and visiting a family said: "We are determined to invest in this island, because its development is important," and then, in conversation with journalists, explained without nuances: "Standards of living will be improved on the island to meet those of mainland Russia."

Tokyo’s diplomatic reaction

The Prime Minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, protested in a clear and strong manner. "We long and consistently - he said - claim that the four northern islands are Japan's territories. The fact that the President (Russian) has visited the region is truly regrettable”.

No less strong was the attitude of the Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara by calling the Russian ambassador, Mikhail Bely, to Tokyo, and calling home the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, Masaharu Kono.

After the meeting Bely, responding to reporters, said the visit was "purely an internal affair of Russia" and urged the Japanese side to "treat the matter with calm and balance”.

More troubling was the recalling of the Japanese ambassador, because it could appear to indicate a rupture of diplomatic relations and the interruption of dialogue to resolve the territorial dispute over the islands. But the foreign minister was quick to clarify that the diplomat was recalled to brief Tokyo on the internal situation in Russia, given the unusual behavior of the president.

"Our fundamental direction, he added, has not changed. We intend to resolve the territorial issue and conclude a peace treaty to strengthen ties between Japan and Russia. "

The 65 year wait for a peace treaty

Because of Medvedev's visit to the island of Kunashiri diplomatic relations between Russia and Japan are likely to suffer a serious decline: it seems that the clock of history has been turned back 65 years.

Until September 1945 no one disputed the Japanese territoriality of the "four northern islands." In the first half of the nineteenth century Japanese settlers started to inhabit these islands, then in 1855 with the Treaty of commerce, navigation and the boundaries it all ended in a friendly and peaceful manner, with Russia, which confirmed the existing reality , in recognition of the territoriality of the Japanese islands.

But between August 28 and September 5, 1945, after the end of the war, the Soviet forces invaded, and in 1949 the then Soviet Union annexed the islands to its own territory deporting all Japanese residents.

But Japan continued to consider  the "Northern Territories" an integral part of its national territory illegally occupied by Russia. The United States has consistently supported the position of Japan.

Since 1955 the Government of the USSR and then Russia has taken an attitude of dialogue in search of a compromise, and in 1993 Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa signed the "Tokyo Declaration" which states that the two nations "will conclude the peace treaty after solving the territorial problem (of the 'four islands), on the basis of relevant legal documents."

Following Vladimir Putin, when he was president of the Russian Federation, proposed as a compromise, the secession of the island of Shikotan and Habomai group and Medvedev followed in the same line in February 2009 when he proposed to take "a straightforward approach to solving the territorial problem". But his sudden visit to Kunashiri blocks the path of dialogue by returning to the initial position of intransigence.

Joint attack by China and Russia

For some analysts, Medvedev’s diplomatic u-turn is motivated by electoral tactics. In 2012 Russia votes in a presidential election: Medvedev, by showing intransigence toward Japan, presents himself as the champion of national rights, overshadowing Vladimir Putin.

But there is another more convincing and disturbing explanation: China and Russia are working together to eliminate the Japan’s influence in the Pacific and control that of the United States. The Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea and the 'four islands" of Japan’s "Northern Territories" control the north and south of the eastern Pacific. The vigorous protest of the Government of China over the Japanese coastguard’s arrest of the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel near the Senkaku Islands in early September and the Russian President’s visit to Kunashiri early November, raise a common territorial claim, against Japan, over the Senkaku islands and the "Northern Territories".

There is a third event that supports this thesis, that falls between these two events; Medvedev's visit to Beijing September 26 to 28 during which he and Hu Jintao in a joint statement - and alluding to Japan - condemned the "attempts " to change the history of the Second World War. Earlier in July, Russia held large-scale military exercises on the island of Etorofu, one of the four disputed islands, and later Medvedev signed a law designating as the memorial day of the end of war as September 2, which is the day in 1945 when Japan consigned to the Allies the documents of unconditional surrender.

Recalling these facts, the editor of The Japan Times wrote: "The government [Japanese] must be alert to the possibility that China and Russia are synchronizing their pressure against Japan”.

The United States in support of Tokyo

The joint attack by China and Russia seems to have been favored by the Japanese government's diplomatic weakness. According to Takahashi Kawakami, a professor of international politics, the current government in Tokyo has given priority to the political bureaucrats, but this way the Kan’s administration has failed in managing diplomatic power.

In this situation, Japan, once again, had no choice but to resort to the United States, which responded promptly. On October 31, Mrs Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, meeting in Hawaii with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said that the Senkaku Islands are considered (by America) Japanese territory and that, under the mutual defense treaty, the United States pledged to defend them in case of foreign attack.