Robert Harneis –TDO-(FRANCE)- The Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has called on Russia to reduce its military activity on four disputed islands in Kuril island chain in the Pacific, after Moscow strengthened its forces there in response to what it sees as a potential threat.

The Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera was speaking during a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Taro Kono, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu following their meeting in Moscow, Russia July 31, 2018.

The territorial dispute over the islands, known as the Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, have prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War Two.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev approved the deployment of Russian military aircraft on Iturup, the largest of the disputed islands in February, accelerating the area’s militarization at a time when Moscow’s ties with Tokyo are strained over the introduction of the Aegis U.S. missile system.

Moscow has also deployed its newest missile defense systems to the islands and plans to build a naval base there even as it continues talks about the territorial dispute.

“We have asked the Russian side to take particular measures because Russia is building up its military potential on the four northern islands,” Onodera said after meeting his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, in Moscow.

Onodera said that the ground-based Aegis ballistic missile defense stations were solely intended to defend Japan and did not pose any threat to Russia.

Russia is concerned that Japan is allowing Washington to use its territory as a base for a U.S. military build-up in north Asia under the pretext of countering North Korea.

The islands were transferred to Russia in 1945 as a result of the US-Soviet agreement, as compensation for the Soviet Union entering the war against Japan. In 1956 an agreement was reached in principle by which Japan agreed to accept two of the four islands as a definitive settlement. The Soviets were prepared to accept this because the two islands are not strategic and would not limit Russia’s control over the entrance to the Sea of Okhotsk, particularly as Japan was prepared to agree to the islands being demilitarized and not becoming an island base for Japan’s US ally.

The United States did not view with a favorable eye Japan and the Soviet Union burying their differences and potentially forming a partnership. Washington informed the Japanese government that if it concluded the agreement the United States would not return Okinawa island to Japan.

Since then the Japanese population has been encouraged to regard the issue as of vital national importance and it will be difficult for any politician to accept less than the return of all four islands. For the Russians it is their strategic value that limits the possibility of a settlement.

Japanese trade and investment are crucial to Russia’s ambitious plans to develop its Far Eastern territories but the dispute over the islands is an obstacle. The Russians see the Japanese as the Germans of the East. Powerful but not powerful enough to be a threat. Like the Germans their close alliance and subservience to the Americans is problematic. They regard them not only as vital trade partners but as a counter weight to China.

The Japanese view the Russians in the same light with the added benefit of secure energy supplies. In 2012 Russia completed the Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (ESPO) to the Pacific Coast rather than to China with these considerations in view. In 2014 the former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori suggested that it would be acceptable to Japan for Russia to keep the largest island Iturup as a good settlement. Both countries have a considerable incentive to settle the quarrel but it will not be easy so long as Japan accepts its role as a military vassal of the United States.

President Vladimir Putin is expected to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East.

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