Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 02/2013

Russia's Pacific Future: Solving the South Kuril Islands Dispute

mitri Trenin, Yuval Weber

December 2012

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


For close to seven decades the dispute over the South Kuril Islands, which the Japanese refer to as the Northern Territories, has marred relations between Russia and Japan. Yet, the world around the disputed area has changed dramatically. World War II, the Cold War, Soviet Communism, and the Soviet Union itself are history. Japan rose fast as a democratic polity and a leading economic power in a close alliance with the United States, only to yield its long-held position as Asia’s premier country to capitalist, if still nominally Communist, China. Post-Communist Russia laid the foundation of capitalism, while managing, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, to keep itself in one piece and to preserve its strategic independence as a “great power.” The thirty-year confrontation between Moscow and Beijing gave way to a strategic partnership supported by substantial trade links. Yet, China also grew visibly stronger than Russia, reversing the situation of the last two-hundred years. The United States, reacting to China’s challenge and seeking to prevent Beijing’s regional hegemony even as it has become almost inextricably linked with China economically, is pivoting to the Asia-Pacific, which has overtaken the Atlantic as the world’s top and most dynamic marketplace. And the rapidly shifting combination of economics, power politics, and different worldviews is redefining international relations in East Asia and the North Pacific.