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Russia's military base worries may put Japan in bind over Northern Territories talks

The island of Kunashiri, an important national security location, is seen in this picture taken on July 6, 2018. (Mainichi/Shinsaku Mano)

TOKYO -- Russian concerns that the United States could establish military facilities on any Northern Territories islands once they are handed back to Japan could leave Tokyo stuck between the goal of settling the sovereignty dispute and maintaining the Japan-U.S. alliance.

In a Sep. 17 televised debate during the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s leadership campaign, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested that Japan and Russia would discuss security matters in his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the bilateral territorial dispute. The four islands and island groups just off Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido that make up the Northern Territories were occupied by Russia's predecessor, the Soviet Union, at the end of World War II.

"The Northern Territories are an important area for Russia's security. We're now focusing on the matter," Abe said in the September debate with leadership rival and former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba.

Abe's statement corresponded with Putin's remark during an international conference in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East five days earlier that he was "worried about many points regarding the military alliance in the region." The comment clearly referred to the Japan-U.S. security pact, and Putin made it at a gathering where Abe was present.

The Northern Territories form part of the Kuril Islands linking Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and Hokkaido -- an island chain that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsk, an "inland sea" for Moscow. During the Cold War, the area was heavily patrolled by Soviet nuclear submarines, which carried nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. Moscow's nuclear deterrent against the United States depends on Russian subs being able to enter and exit the sea freely, and limiting access to the waters by their U.S. Navy counterparts.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military critic, pointed out that, because the Sea of Okhotsk is nearly closed off by the Kuril chain, the islands' importance for Moscow is only growing.

The Russian military has deployed some 3,500 troops total to Kunashiri and Etorofu, two of the Northern Territories' bigger islands. The deployment is obviously aimed at protecting the Russian Pacific Fleet's routes to the wider ocean, and to secure the Sea of Okhotsk for the fleet's activities.

In contrast, Russia has not deployed troops to Habomai and Shikotan, the territories' smaller islands. Shinji Hyodo, a fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies, pointed out, "Since Habomai and Shikotan are far less important militarily, there is room for compromise."

However, if Japan's Self-Defense Forces or the U.S. military were to establish an electronic eavesdropping facility or other defense installations on these smaller islands, Russian troops stationed on Kunashiri and Etorofu would be unable to keep their operations secret.

Even until now, the presence of U.S. forces in Japan has been a stumbling block to territorial talks, Putin has told Japan. To alleviate Putin's concerns, Prime Minister Abe told the Russian leader in their November 2016 meeting in Peru that Japan "intends to demilitarize the Northern Territories," meaning that no U.S. bases would be placed on the four islands if they were returned to Japan's sovereignty.

The Japan-U.S. Status-of-Forces Agreement stipulates that "the United States is granted, under Article VI of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the use of facilities and areas in Japan." A senior government official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Japan, which has sovereignty, can ultimately make judgments on the stationing of U.S. forces."

Nevertheless, Putin has expressed concerns that U.S. forces could theoretically be deployed in the Northern Territories.

The Japanese government is wary that Russia may demand a written pledge from Tokyo not to allow U.S. forces to establish any bases in the Northern Territories. Since it is extremely unlikely that Washington would acquiesce to any document signed by Moscow and Tokyo that would bind the U.S. forces, Japan could be caught in a quandary.

Another potential pitfall for excluding the Northern Territories from the application of Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is the presence of the Senkaku Islands off the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, which is controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

At the request of Japan, the United States has declared that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty -- committing U.S. forces to defend Japan in case of a military attack -- applies to the Senkaku Islands.

An individual knowledgeable in Japan-Russia relations said, "If the security treaty doesn't apply to the Northern Territories, other countries could insist that the pact shouldn't apply to the Senkakus, either."

Another person linked to the government is wary of Russia's moves. "The (alliance) issue wasn't mentioned in the summit in Singapore. It'll probably be brought up in the future."

(Japanese original by Yoshitaka Koyama, Muneyoshi Mitsuda, Shinichi Akiyama and Shu Furukawa, Political News Department, and Hitoshi Omae, Moscow Bureau)

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