China Takes Neutral Stance on Ownership of Kuril Islands

A map showing the Kuril Islands and surrounding area, with the disputed islands circled.

During last month’s meeting between the Presidents of Russia and China, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly told his Russian counterpart that China “does not take either side,” when it comes to ownership of the Kuril Islands. Russia has occupied the Kuril Islands since the end of the Second World War, despite Japanese objections. The specific islands in dispute are Etorofu island, Kunashiri island, Shikotan island, and Habomai island.

This new position by Chinese leadership is a change from their past recognition of Japanese ownership of the islands. In 1964 then Chinese leader Mao Zedong recognized Japan’s ownership of the islands.

During the same talks, Vladimir Putin requested Chinese investment into what Russia calls a ‘special duty-free zone’ on the islands. President Xi did not make it clear whether Chinese businesses would be allowed to operate on the contested islands. He said the matter would be left up to the Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission Zheng Shanjie.

Russia and Japan had been engaged in negotiations to end their dispute over the Kuril Islands since the 1980s, but negotiations were halted last spring. The sudden end to negotiations came in response to Japanese sanctions on Russia. China’s neutral stance will likely complicate any future negotiations on the matter.