Anastasia O.Barannikova

Admiral Nevelskoy Maritime State University, Vladivostok  

Abstract: There are several longstanding territorial disputes in the Northeast Asian region. Some of these disputes are considered dormant and thus do not have a significant impact on regional security. However, they may raise concerns in the distant future. Just as there are no eternal friendships, treaties and mechanisms, there are no final agreements on border demarcation. As for the active territorial disputes like those that China, Japan and Russia have with their neighbors, they have already affected relations between countries in one way or another, leading to clashes and mutual accusations. Although territorial disputes in the region have not led to serious military conflicts and have not even prevented countries from cooperating so far, in the context of global shifts it makes sense to analyze how their conflict potential has changed.Keywords: Northeast Asia, territorial disputes, DPRK, China, Japan, Russia, ROK  

There are several longstanding territorial disputes in the Northeast Asian region (NEA). Although some of these disputes last for decades and even centuries, they have not had a dramatic impact on regional security, have not led to a serious military conflict and have not prevented countries involved in territorial disputes from cooperating so far. However, we are facing global shifts now, caused by the ongoing rivalry between China and the United States, as well as an open confrontation between Russia and the collective West. Smaller states also cannot stand aside from the great powers’ standoff, they are usually forced to take one side or the other in the conflict, which puts them in front of difficult choices and exacerbates existing problems in relations with their neighbors. Territorial claims are one of the problems that could be aggravated by the current international political rift. In this connection it makes sense to analyze the changes (if any) in the conflict potential of active territorial disputes in NEA and prospects for their development.  

The dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands[1] is considered the most dangerous in terms of the likelihood of a military conflict. There are two key factors driving this dispute. The first factor is the rapid growth of China, its change in position and rhetoric. Scholars [16] note drastic changes in Chinese foreign policy after 2008, when China began shifting «from reaction to action, from “rule taking” to “rule-making”. Chinese government has become more assertive in promoting its national interests and its official rhetoric became tougher. These dramatic changes were accompanied by an increase of China’s military power. The second factor is Japan’s active remilitarization, accompanied by advancing weapon systems and doubling defense budget. New military stance of Japan is encouraged by the US since it is associated with certain benefits for the alliance. Japan has also become more active in territorial matters. In such conditions, it is not surprising that the conflict potential of the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute increased significantly, leading to several incidents and ship collisions like one between a Chinese trawler and a Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat on September 7, 2010. The toughening of the positions of countries on territorial disputes is supported by legislation and military buildups. On November 23, 2013 China introduced new air traffic restrictions in air defense identification zone covering most of the East China Sea and including the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands [8]. It was not recognized by Japan and its military aircraft along with those of the US and ROK flew through the zone. China started sending fighter jets on patrol duty in the area, so now both countries fighters are patrolling it. Japan has also started operating a radar station at Yonaguni Island since 28 March 2016 and created Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF)’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade in 2018. In February 2021 China passed a law authorizing its Coast Guard ships to use weapons in disputed waters [19]. In response, Japan allowed its Coast Guard to fire against foreign ships aiming to land on the disputed islands [12]. This March, Japan deployed up to 570 Ground Self-Defense Force members at the newly established garrison on Ishigaki island, located 200 kilometers south of the disputed islands [14]. The deployed unit includes missile squads capable of launching land-to-ship and land-to-air missiles.

These trends have already escalated tensions and will lead to further accidental military clashes between two countries’ navies or air forces. However, a full-scale military conflict over the islands between the two countries remains unlikely. First of all, two countries depend on each other economically and will not sacrifice long-term ties, interests and goals. Scholars point that economic interdependence (among all NEA countries, not just China and Japan) makes the risk of territorial dispute escalating into a military conflict relatively small. Economic interdependence forces not only political leaders but also domestic groups to prefer cooperation to confrontation [13]. The other point is that interdependence between two countries is asymmetric (as usually the case with China). China has more economic influence and resources and thus can achieve its foreign policy goals through the use of economic pressure rather than military force.

The dispute between Russia and Japan over the southern Kuril Islands[2] is less volatile. For several decades only one serious incident has occurred over the islands, when Russian border guards detained a Japanese fishing schooner on August 16, 2006. During the incident, one Japanese fisherman was shot dead [3]. There have been no military incidents, attempts to take the islands over by force, and even significant provocations, except for the appearance of an American submarine in adjacent waters last year, when a U.S. Virginia-class submarine was detected in the area of Urup Island where the Russian Pacific Fleet was conducting drills [4]. Until recently, Russia and Japan maintained cross-border cooperation, and Japanese citizens could visit the Southern Kuril Islands under a simplified visa regime. A reminder of the territorial dispute occurred mainly through the exchange of diplomatic statements between the authorities of both countries and propaganda campaigns like the Northern Territories Day, an annual commemoration marked in Japan since 1981. Rallies of the ultra-right organizations and meetings of high-ranking officials and politicians calling “to return” the islands are organized to commemorate this day. The Russian Foreign Ministry usually responds with appropriate statements and everything calms down until next September.

Naturally, Russia cannot but be concerned about the fact that half of the Japanese Ground Forces are stationed on the island of Hokkaido closest to the Kuril Islands. The Northern Army of Japan (which is the largest one and has the most of JGSDF’s tank squadrons), 60% of tanks of the Self-Defense Forces, about 800 artillery and mortar systems, up to 90 aircraft, and missiles systems are stationed there. At the end of 2022, the Japanese government announced plans to develop hypersonic missiles and deploy some of them in Hokkaido [1]. Russia also significantly modernized its defense capabilities of the islands. The main responsibility for protecting the Kuril Islands lies with the 18th machine gun artillery division of the 68th Army Corps of the Russian Armed Forces, stationed in Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. The Russian troops in the Kuril Islands are armed with T-80BV tanks, surface-to-ship missiles (SSMs) Bastion (SSC-5) and “Bal”(SSC-6) and S-300V4 air defense systems. Bastion coastal defense complexes are located on the islands, Iturup, Matua and Paramushir. Su-35S fighters are stationed at the Yasny airfield on Iturup Island [7].

Even before the current deterioration of bilateral relations, the possibility of conflict between Russia and Japan (and the US) in connection with the territorial dispute over the islands was not ruled out (and is evidenced by the efforts of two countries on militarization of the area). Now, when relations between two countries are at their lowest point and Japan continues its course towards remilitarization, the likelihood of conflict on the one hand can be considered higher. On the other hand, Japan has the option of exercising economic and propaganda pressure on Russia rather than using force. Military conflict seems the last resort: only if there was significant weakening of the Russian Armed Forces in this region, Japan might take unilateral measures in relation to the islands. As for economic pressure, Japan is already exerting it (particularly, via G7), albeit for different reasons. It should be noted that territorial disputes are not the main factor in the current state of relations between the countries. The worsening of relation started in the context of the Ukrainian conflict. Japan’s new strategies make it clear that it is China, which is still considered the main adversary of Japan and threat to its security: “China’s current external stance, military activities, and other activities have become a matter of serious concern for Japan and the international community, and present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring peace and security of Japan…” [10]. With this in mind, it can be assumed that the majority of Japan’s forces deployed in the region are aimed primarily at containing China, not Russia. As for position of Japan in its dispute with Russia, it has not changed much in new National Security Strategy: “…As for the Northern Territories issue, which is the greatest concern regarding our diplomacy with Russia, Japan’s basic policy of concluding a peace treaty through the resolution of the territorial issue remains unchanged”[11]. It means that despite the deterioration of bilateral relations, and sharp changes in attitude to Russia, the probability of conflict over this specific issue at the initiative of Japan remains low.    

(End of introductory fragment)

[1] A group of uninhabited islands located in the East China Sea between Japan, the People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of China (Taiwan). The archipelago contains five uninhabited islands and three rocks, with size from 800 m2 to 4.32 km2.[2] The Kuril Islands (Northern Territories in Japan) dispute is a territorial dispute over the ownership of the four southernmost Kuril Islands: Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai