02/19/2011, 00.00
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Kurils Islands: growing tension between Moscow and Tokyo

Establishment of Sino-Russian joint ventures to create fish farms on the Kurils, disputes between Russia and Japan. Moscow also wants to create a modern military base there. But Tokyo has no intention of giving up the islands, rich in fish, oil and gas.

Tokyo (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Russian and Chinese Fishing Companies want to set up joint ventures for the exploitation of the Eastern Kurils Islands. But the archipelago is disputed between Russia and Japan.

The Russian Fisheries Agency and a Chinese firm want to establish a scallop farm on the island of Shikotan, just north of Japan's Hokkaido. Other enterprises include the cultivation of sea urchins on Kunashir island. Even South Korean companies want to catch fish and trade in the Kurils. But Zhaoxu, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Feb. 17 that it had no detailed reports of these business initiatives and hopes that Japan and Russia will resolve their dispute.

The islands, formerly the territory of Japan, which calls them the Northern Territories, have been controlled by Russia since the Second World War. Recently, Moscow has made a series of demonstrative projects to reaffirm its rule such as a "visit" made at the end of October by Russian President Vladimir Medvedev (pictured) and the subsequent visits of the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Igor Shuvalov, December 2010 and that of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in February 2011.

Japan reacted with the decision, claiming its exclusive right over the archipelago. On February 7, Day of the Northern Territories, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has called Medvedev's visit "unacceptable."

Russia has said that any further discussion on the sovereignty of the islands is "without basis".

The situation is worsened by the need for both parties to present an image of strength and resolve. In recent years, Moscow had repeatedly called on Tokyo to deal with the territorial dispute, but it has also developed investments in remote eastern Russia, without the agreement of Japan. So the current crisis is seen by Moscow as a demonstration of decisive foreign policy and the Russian military presence in the area.

The Kurils are in a strategic position for controlling access to the Okhotsk Sea and are rich in fish and other raw materials (iron ore, oil and natural gas). Marcin Kaczmarski, from the Centre for Eastern Studies, points out that the Russian General Nikolai Makarov announced the creation of a military garrison on the islands, which could be equipped with rockets and heavy artillery, advanced systems and helicopter gunships. A base that will ultimately prove Moscow’s determination in claiming territorial rights.

The visit to Moscow on February 11 by Seiji Maehara, the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, has not served to ease tensions. Maehara has already made contact with South Korean counterparts to reaffirm Japan's sovereignty over the area. He is also due to travel to China in April, even though Beijing appears to give the visit a low profile, also considering the current difficulties of the Japanese government.

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