During his July 21-22 visit to China, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will discuss the final steps in the planned August handover of the remaining disputed islands between Russia and China. This will bring the outstanding border issues between the neighbors to a close. The resolution, which removes one of the lingering irritants in Sino-Russian relations, is seen by some as a possible signal that Moscow may also be ready to sort out its island disputes with Japan — but the two issues are exceedingly different for Moscow.
Moscow and Beijing have said that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will discuss the handover of Tarabarov Island (Yinlong Dao in Chinese) and half of Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island (Heixiazi Dao) as the final stage in rectifying the Sino-Russian border during his July 21-22 visit to China. The transfer of control will take place in August, thus completing a process revitalized in 1991 to delineate the border between China and the former Soviet Union. This process has included agreements in 1994, the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and a set of final deals reached in 2004. In early July, Gen. Valery Putov of the Far East department of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said the final preparations were being made, guard posts moved and new security features put in place for the transfer of control. Russia has held the islands, sandwiched between the Amur and Ussuri rivers near Khabarovsk, since the 1920s. The area has been the center of several adjustments on control over the past three centuries, falling in the Chinese sphere under the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, slipping back to the Russians in the disputed 1858 Treaty of Aigun, and ultimately occupied by the Soviet Union in 1929. Resolving the border thus ends centuries of disagreements that, in the 1960s, involved armed clashes between the neighbors. It also brings the process of demarcating the Sino-Russian border to a close. Under earlier agreements, the disposition of some 320 other riverine islands were sorted out. Lying so close to Russia's Khabarovsk, these islands were somewhat more sensitive. While there have been some complaints from both those living on the islands and those arguing that Russian security — and particularly the security of Khabarovsk — would be at risk if China occupied the islands, Moscow has argued that the threat of a Chinese invasion of Russia is low. And, with changes in warfare, even if the two sides did come to blows, China gains little strategic advantage from being in the middle of the river. For Russia, the resolution and delivery of the islands costs little, and may serve to bolster ties with China. As Moscow prepares for increased competition with the United States and Europe, it wants to ensure that the West does not again grab China as an ally in any renewed Cold War scenario. Giving up a couple of river islands is a small price to pay to appeal to Beijing and show Moscow less as a competitor than as a potential partner to China. Removing the border issue as a potential irritant in relations simply makes Moscow's attempts to keep China at least neutral a little easier. But while Moscow has something to gain and not much to lose in handing over the islands to China, its dispute with Japan over what Tokyo calls the Northern Territories is a very different issue. Throughout the Cold War, Japan served as a cork for bottling up the Russian Pacific fleet — a role that became less significant after the Cold War as the Russian fleet sat rusting. But Russia is slowly reviving its interest in the Far East, both for economic and strategic reasons. And returning the disputed islands to Japan would extend Japanese maritime territory farther north, changing access to fishing grounds, undersea resources and sea-lane access. Despite decades of talks, Moscow and Tokyo are no closer to a resolution on Japan's calls for Russia to return the four islands (known to the Russians as the Kuril Islands) it has occupied since the end of World War II. Unlike the river islands on the Chinese border, these Russian/Japanese islands serve a strategic role in shaping the maritime borders and — should Russia return them to Japan — could encourage Tokyo to seek other Russian islands it once held, including the natural gas-rich Sakhalin (known to the Japanese as Karafuto). And that is a can of worms that, at least for now, Russia sees no need to open.