The Japanese government’s National Institute for Polar Research (NIPR) released four reports so far this month (July 2021) outlining Tokyo’s view that Japan should be among the countries allowed to exploit the oil and natural gas resources lying below the surface in Antarctica and to make territorial claims there once the current treaty regime expires or is modified (Nipr.ac.jp cited by Rambler, July 24). That has sparked outrage in Moscow. Russian commentaries have characterized the NIPR proposals as a threat to Russian rights in the Antarctic; as a challenge to the 1959 international accord that governs the activities of countries there; as a new move on the geopolitical chessboard intended to put pressure on Moscow to sign a peace treaty with Tokyo and return the Kurile Islands; and even as a trial balloon to test out analogous plans the United States may try to employ against Russia in the Arctic in the immediate future (Izvestia, Politros.com, iReactor, Ren.tv, July 24; Expert.ru, July 25).
The NIPR reports, in fact, do not speak about any immediate Japanese actions but rather appear designed to set the stage for Tokyo’s participation in talks planned to revise the 1959 international accord, which limits the activities of the signatory countries to only scientific research in the Antarctic. That accord is set to expire in 2048; but already, Russia and other countries have been talking about its revision so as to permit exploitation of oil and gas reserves there (see EDM, June 9, 2020, June 24, 2020, January 19, 2021). Japan raised this issue before, in 2012, but its legal position is different; and so its announcement then was largely ignored in Moscow and the West. Tokyo made expansive claims regarding Antarctica in 1939, but the post-World War II settlement forced the Japanese government to give them up in 1951. That has had two consequences. First, it has meant that Japan’s claims to the southern polar region are invariably wrapped up in the issues of the revision of the outcome of that war, something Russian President Vladimir Putin is especially sensitive to (not least because of the Kurile Islands dispute—see EDM, November 27, 2018 and January 24, 2019). And second, it has meant that whenever Japan does make a claim, however far in the future it may be, Moscow-based experts tend to see it as a stalking horse, either to make demands for a return of the Kuriles or as an action taken on behalf of the US against Russia (Svobodnaya Pressa, July 25).
Most of the coverage in Moscow over the last few days about the Japanese reports has been dismissive, viewing them as, at most, Japan’s latest effort to pressure Russia to return the Kurile Islands. Moreover, these commentaries collectively suggest that the real competition in the Antarctic is in the seas around it rather than on land, at least for now. But some Russian analysts, like Igor Shatrov of the Strategic Development Council, see what Japan has done as having far broader implications. For Shatrov, it represents a sign that Tokyo increasingly wants to act without regard to the post–World War II settlement and is an indication that Japan is working hand-in-glove with the US to come up with a strategy in the Antarctic in the distant future that the two countries can apply against Russia in the Arctic now. He and others argue Russia must work more closely with China to counter this Japanese-US move (Svobodnaya Pressa, July 25).
One who makes this case is Andrei Koshkin of the Russian Economics University, who has argued in the past that anything Japan does is the implementation of US plans and that whatever Tokyo is saying about the Antarctic provides a glimpse into what Washington intends to do in the Arctic. Because that is so, he contends, any manifestation of Japanese interest in Antarctica must be of immediate concern to Moscow. This is not so much because Japan or the US can do anything in the world’s southernmost region now or that Russia could not block them (see EDM, January 19, 2021; Meduza, December 16, 2020; N+1, December 7, 2020; Kommersant, November 26, 2020; Znak, January 28, 2020) but rather because of its implications for what is likely to happen in the Arctic in the near future (Svobodnaya Pressa, October 26, 2020).
Of course, a critical difference exists between the Arctic and Antarctic as far as international politics is concerned. A global accord restricts development in the Antarctic until mid-century; and disputes there are primarily about fishing in the seas around the continent rather than over natural resources locked away underground. But the Japanese NITR reports suggest that the differences between policies regarding the areas around the poles are narrowing. As long as the issue in the Antarctic is about fishing, the US has real advantages because many countries, including Japan, want to restrict Russian fishermen there. If the dispute shifts to land, Russia may be able to use the 1959 treaty and exploit the fears of many countries that they will be left out in a scramble for resources beneath the Antarctic ice. That means Moscow must be concerned about any territorial claims there, ally itself with China, and use their common objections to block them, Koshkin says, all while recognizing that the US is developing policies around the South Pole that it intends to use in the North (Svobodnaya Pressa, October 26, 2020).
Thus, what might appear to many as a tempest in a Moscow media teapot is anything but. It is a sign of Russian concern about Japan’s new international activism not only in the Antarctic but more generally; and it is a reflection of a broader Russian judgment that whatever the West does in Antarctica is first and foremost not about that continent but about the polar region in the north—an area Vladimir Putin has made central to his plans to project Russian power in order to defend Russian national security.