The complex, delicately poised reset in the Russia-Japan relationship increasingly seems a distant prospect. Both Russia and Japan desired a reset and saw it being in their best interests.
Russia hopes to attract Japan as a major economic partner, especially in the development of the Siberian and Far Eastern regions, where China is moving in. On Japan’s part, the territorial dispute with Russia is an emotive issue that has prevented the two countries from concluding a formal peace treaty after World War II.
If the indications at the beginning of the year were that Putin would pay a historic visit to Japan towards the end of the year, the deferment by Tokyo of a planned round of consultations in Moscow by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (penciled in for August 31-September 1) to prepare the ground for Putin’s visit comes as a reality check.
Tokyo’s decision is being seen as a mark of ‘protest’ over Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to one of the four disputed islands over the weekend (22 August 2015). However, it has an inevitability insofar as it is only the latest manifestation of a steady slide in the Russo-Japanese relations that was discernible, dating back to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s state visit to Washington and the release of the new Guidelines for US-Japan Defence Cooperation on April 27.
The Guidelines document that was originally created in 1979 outlining the military cooperation between the US and Japan in the event of a (Soviet) military attack against Japan was updated for the post-Cold War era in 1997. It has now been revised a second time and brought in line with the emergent geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region devolving upon an «assertive» China.
From Russian point of view, Japan gearing up to play a more active role in supporting the US-led operations globally becomes a point of concern. In particular, the Guidelines emphasize the US-Japan cooperation in the field of ballistic missile defence or the BMD. The US, in fact, has begun deploying the BMD system in Japan.
This comes at a time when the Russian and US interests are at odds in Northeast Asia, where the potential for full-scale conflict is greater today. Russia cannot be expected to see the US-Japan alliance as a stabilizing factor in the region. Russia would have hoped that Japan’s DNA might prompt it to pursue independent foreign policies without excessive dependence on the US alliance system, but the manner in which Tokyo simply fell in line with the US’ regime of sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis speaks otherwise.
Indeed, the spectre of a US-sponsored BMD architecture shaping up in the Far East worries Russia, which in its military doctrine revised last December pointedly referred to the growing fears of precisely such a thing happening on the country’s periphery. Article 12 of Russia’s military doctrine vividly refers to the threat perception that any of Russia’s neighbors could deploy BMD hardware and make claims on its territory.
Washington and Tokyo may take the line that they do not envision Russia as a threat to Japan and that the US-Japan alliance does not target Russia as such, but in the present climate of Russian-American relations, Moscow is not going to be lulled into complacency.
Abe’s push to expand the role of the military (within the doctrine called ‘collective self-defence’) is not helping matters, either. The controversial bills passed by the lower house of Japan’s parliament last month would allow Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War II.
In a nutshell, the proposed legislation bears testimony to Tokyo giving in to American pressure to do more for the US strategy of rebalancing Asian power, by playing a more active role in the US-Japan military alliance.
Moscow’s disquiet might not have found forceful articulation – unlike Beijing’s – but the disquiet is certainly there. A series of steps Moscow has taken since April fall into perspective.
Thus, the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9 turned out to be a high point of Russia-China strategic convergence: Chinese President Xi Jinping was indeed the guest of honor; President Putin confirmed his plans to attend China’s own celebrations in Beijing on September 3; apart from giving a big boost to the economic relations and a poignant joint remembrance of history, the two leaders also agreed to formally link the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt implying «a common economic space on the continent» (Putin).
Again, in June, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the speeding up of construction of military and civilian infrastructure on the Kurile Islands. On July 24, he announced that the Russian troops deployed to the Kurile Islands will be «rearmed» by September. Meanwhile, new military drills are being planned on the Kurile Islands.
In early August, Russian government approved a federal target program for the overall socio-economic development of the Kurile Islands over the next ten-year period at an estimated expenditure of $1.5 billion. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the program «will facilitate Kurile islands to turn into a modern Russian territory, where it is comfortable to live and interesting to work». Finally, on Saturday, Medvdev paid a highly publicized visit to the Kurile Islands.
In a commentary recently, the Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times noted: «Their (Russia and Japan’s) strategic interests are in conflict… Moscow’s biggest security threat is from the US-dominated military alliances. Japan, on the other hand, has played an active role in these alliances… The territorial dispute defies an easy solution… Today, it becomes even more unlikely that Russia would satisfy Japan’s territorial demands… There are many structural barriers between Russia and Japan. Even if the relationship… may see détente, it will not greatly improve».
It is a fair assessment. But the commentary failed to examine the Russian strategic calculus as such. To go back in time, through the Cold War period, Japan formed the US’ containment line against Soviet naval deployment forces. And, Moscow had responded by ordering the Soviet Navy to turn the Sea of Okhotsk into a strategic naval bastion for its ballistic missile submarines, with the Kurile Islands as part of the ‘keep out’ zone.
Therefore, Russian build-up around the Kurile Islands has a backdrop. Besides, it is also in anticipation of the full-scale opening of the so-called Northern Sea Route. As far back as in September 2011 – much before the crisis in Ukraine erupted and the ‘East-West’ ties got degraded – Russia had conducted its biggest military exercise in the seas near the Kurile Islands in the post-Cold War era, involving 20 naval ships along with bombers.
Arguably, Russia’s Arctic policy demands that the Kurile Islands got elevated to the frontlines of the country’s defence and national security. Russia can be expected to steadily strengthen its military presence around the Kurile Islands and develop its infrastructure and port facilities, no matter what it takes.
The common folklore is that the Arctic holds vast untapped reserves of oil and gas, minerals, fresh water, fish and so on. But what is less known is that the strong strategic presence in the Arctic also enables Russia to have access to all the oceans of the world and is vital to countering the US’ containment strategy.
The Pentagon assesses that Russia is currently the world’s most advanced nation in terms of developing the Arctic military infrastructure. Russia’s military doctrine, which Putin signed last December, aims to build a unified network of military facilities in the Arctic territories to host troops, warships and aircraft.
Conceivably, although Moscow has largely kept its thoughts to itself, it is bound to see the US-Japan BMD cooperation within the framework of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defence Cooperation as a threat to the strategic balance. In these circumstances, a genuine reset of relations with Japan becomes problematic.
Clearly, the US is pushing the envelope through its BMD deployments in the Far East. The Russo-Japanese ties may get into turbulence if Moscow at some point chooses to close ranks with Beijing on the threat posed to them by the US’ BMD deployments.
Putin’s forthcoming visit to Beijing next week becomes an important signpost of the emergent strategic realignments in the Far East.