Putin’s Japanese balancing act

Russia has spent the last three years improving relations with Japan and China. So far, that hasn’t required any awkward choices, says Yuexin Rachel Lin.

Western leaders may have been conspicuous in their absence from the Sochi Olympics, but East Asian leaders were clearly keen to endorse the Games. Both Chinese and Japanese presidents Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe attended the opening ceremony and were effusive in praising the event. On the sidelines, Xi and Abe engaged in private talks with Putin in what seems to be a curious triple courtship. With China and Japan at loggerheads, Russia has emerged as an important potential tie-breaker.

Chinese state media has so far been reticent about the Xi-Putin summit, but ties between Russia and Japan are warming further. Abe’s meeting with Putin, the fifth since the Japanese president took office in December 2012, represents a definite commitment to engage with Russia. Central to Abe’s agenda this time is the resolution of a 70-year-old conflict over the Kuril Islands – known in Japan as the Northern Territories – which have been claimed by Russia since the end of World War Two. The islands have prevented the two countries from signing a permanent peace treaty. Resolving the island dispute could open the door to increased economic cooperation.

Japan’s willingness to negotiate, however, does not represent a capitulation. Just hours before travelling to Sochi, Abe addressed a rally calling for the return of the Northern Territories, where he promised to hold “tenacious negotiations” with Russia over the islands. Any deal hammered out between Japan and Russia must take into account the emotive and military dimensions of this territorial dispute. Russia’s takeover of the islands resulted in the eviction of the entire Japanese population. As late as 2011, two new military posts were planned for the islands, which would become – with perhaps some exaggeration – “Russia’s fortress in the Far East”.

Economics and Energy

Instead, the newfound cosiness between Russia and Japan represents the changed atmosphere in the Pacific, one in which the interests of Moscow and Tokyo increasingly coincide. The catalyst, here as elsewhere, is China. Putin has repeatedly stressed the need to develop Russia’s Far East and Siberia, economically neglected areas which lie in the frontlines of an expanding Chinese economy. Six million Russians face 90 million Chinese across the Sino-Russian border, a perennial source of anxiety for Russian leaders. A 2011 report by Nezavisimaia Gazeta concluded that “China invests more in the Russian Far East than our own government does.”

Russia’s policies have reflected these concerns. A Far East development ministry was established in 2012. More recently, Putin’s annual presidential address last December called business development in the Far East the “national priority of the entire 21st century”. Increased Japanese investment in the Russian Far East would not only be critical for this project as a whole – it would also provide a critical counterweight to China’s presence in the region.

Energy politics have also brought Moscow and Tokyo together. Russia’s push to dramatically increase oil and gas exports to Asia via the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline dovetails nicely with an energy-hungry Japan. The 2011 Fukushima disaster has driven Japan into ever-greater reliance on natural gas to replace nuclear power, resulting in 18 months of trade deficits. Tokyo now accounts for a third of global LNG shipments. Russian natural gas is critical for Japan’s energy security.

Island diplomacy and the China factor

Progress on the Kuril Islands dispute, moreover, would throw other Pacific island conflicts into sharp relief. Island diplomacy has emerged as a key flashpoint in the region, most notably with Japan and China contesting the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. Japan also has an unresolved dispute with South Korea over the Liancourt Islands. Here, Russia has emerged as an important third party, with both China and Japan soliciting Moscow’s support over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai issue. Support over each other’s territorial claims has formed a cornerstone of Sino-Russian diplomacy, as evidenced by a 2010 agreement that took in both the Kuriles and Senkaku/Diaoyutai. The Chinese government has itself repeatedly urged Russia to take a firm stand on the dispute, tantamount to forming an anti-Japanese front.

Conversely, Putin will have to reconsider Russia’s stance on Senkaku/Diaoyutai if yet closer relations with Japan are on the cards. Even now, the current Moscow-Tokyo rapprochement calls into question Russia’s wider relationship with China over island diplomacy – an issue which Xi has termed China’s “core interests”.

Clearly, a remarkable confluence of interests has brought Russia and Japan together, as evidenced in the Sochi meeting. A Russo-Japanese accord over the Kuril Islands would lay to rest a seven-decade conflict and, perhaps, usher in a new period of economic cooperation. Nevertheless, the elephant in the room remains the China factor – one which has indirectly led to the rapprochement in the first place, but which also threatens to destabilise any regional agreement. Russia has now adopted a studied neutrality in its island diplomacy, balancing Japanese and Chinese interests. Its ability to maintain this neutrality will be critical to the development of any Asia-Pacific policy.


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