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Searching for a common ground in Russia-Japan relations

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  • July 23, 2016

    The shifting security environment of the Asia-Pacific region, brought about by an increasingly dominant China, is opening up new opportunities for Russia and Japan to partner together.

    Amidst an evolving great power rivalry between Russia and China stretching from Eurasia to the Asia-Pacific, a Russian-Japanese rapprochement appears to be gaining momentum. This is exemplified by their renewed economic and political engagement, with the last round of talks being held on July 19 during Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev’s visit to Tokyo.

    The visit of Prime Minister Abe to Sochi back in May is another signal of the attempt to reset their bilateral ties. The agenda involved a “new approach” to resolve the Southern Kuril Islands boundary dispute that remains a festering issue and the biggest stumbling block in normalizing ties between the two countries.

    Technically, Russia and Japan still remain at war due to the absence of a Second World War Peace Treaty and Tokyo still supports Washington’s sanctions against Moscow in response to the incorporation of Crimea in 2014. Against this backdrop, the “new approach” seems to have created a positive sentiment in their bilateral discussions. It can even result in a landmark reciprocal visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of this year.

    Therefore, the key questions are: What are the interests of Russia and Japan in recalibrating their approach towards each other? And what are the limits of their rapprochement?

    The China factor

    The common denominator appears to be the challenge of a dominant China in their neighbourhood. Such ambitious integration projects as the One Belt One Road initiative (a plan to connect Asian, European, and African continents through transport and infrastructure development in Eurasia) are likely to strengthen Beijing’s rise as a continental and maritime power and have a profound impact on the regional strategic balance. In this light, the unequal dynamics of the engagement of Russia and Japan with China are noteworthy.

    Moscow has been compelled to seek an entente with Beijing in order to tide over its confrontation with the West including accommodating China even in its core strategic space. As a result, the balance of the relationship has tilted heavily in favor of Beijing. In this light, a more meaningful engagement with Japan and other regional countries may provide the Kremlin with some breathing space and add pillars to Russia’s pivot towards Asia.

    Otherwise, Russia runs the risk of being restricted to China. Russia’s measured position on the July 12 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s South China Sea ruling, which supported a diplomatic solution to the dispute and called for compliance with international law, highlighted the limits of a Russia-China entente.

    Similarly, Japan remains wary of an assertive Beijing. A Russian-Chinese convergence of interests, particularly if Moscow takes a sympathetic view of Beijing’s positions, can further muddy the Asia-Pacific waters. In a highly symbolic move in June, Russian and Chinese navies sailed in the disputed waters near the Japanese Senkaku Islands. The Kremlin has also agreed to sell cutting-edge weapons platforms to Beijing, including the S-400 air-defence systems and SU-35 fighter jets which might alter the security balance in the region.

    Meanwhile, apprehensions have grown in Japan about the U.S. commitment to its extended deterrence, as statements emanating from the U.S. presidential candidates have ruffled many feathers. Japan also did not lose sight of the fact that the U.S policy of isolating Russia has boosted the Moscow-Beijing partnership. A prolonged confrontation with Russia in Europe might divert America’s attention from the Asia-Pacific region, leaving Japan in a perilous position.

    Therefore, given the geopolitical rivalries at play, a rapprochement with Russia can provide Tokyo options to better manage emerging crises. However, it is highly unlikely that Japan will abandon its military cooperation with the U.S. since it remains the cornerstone of its security policy. With America’s attention focused on the upcoming presidential elections, it is perhaps no coincidence that Abe has sought to re-engage Putin during the final months of Obama’s tenure. This will give him some leeway to explore synergies of cooperation with Russia.

    Contours of rapprochement

    The broad contours of the Japanese-Russian reconciliation appear to be taking shape. It involves weaving a web of economic partnerships to anchor the bilateral ties and build on the goodwill to resolve the boundary dispute. In several ways, Abe’s ‘eight point’ development blueprint seems to have struck a chord with President Putin.

    First, given the compelling need to modernize Russia’s economy, Japan can be the source of high-tech knowledge and innovation. This assumes significance given the inherent limits of the Moscow-Beijing partnership. Neither has China been able to meet Russia’s high-tech requirements nor has its pace of investments been satisfactory.

    Second, Japanese investments in the Far East can spur the region’s development. It can also subtly balance China’s increasing forays into Russia’s underbelly.

    Third, a robust energy partnership can help Russia diversify its energy supplies from Europe and China. This acquires urgency, given Brussels’ plans to seek alternative suppliers of hydrocarbons and Beijing’s ability to play the energy card by virtue of being the major recipient of Russian gas in the region. It helps that Japan remains a net importer of energy. The Russian hydrocarbons can also let Tokyo diversify its energy imports from the volatile Middle East.

    Fourth, an engagement with Japan strengthens the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia cannot be isolated. Meanwhile, the resolution of the historical boundary dispute can fortify Abe’s domestic legacy. Notably, Japan’s territorial problems with other neighbors remain far more contentious and immediate solutions distant.

    Moreover, there exists a wider spectrum of potential cooperation. This involves combating terrorism, managing the Korean crisis, tapping the Northern Sea Route’s linkages and stabilizing Afghanistan. Russia has also been receptive to Japan’s Central Asian overtures in building economic linkages and tackling drug trafficking.

    Limits of the reconciliation

    Nevertheless, it is unlikely that a breakthrough will emerge in the near future. This despite Abe cultivating a personal relationship with Putin against numerous odds, including breaking ranks with the G7 and adopting a more flexible position on the boundary issue. Perhaps it is even prudent that Abe plays a deft role in managing the adversarial relationship between Russia and the U.S. At the end of the day, the biggest winner of their confrontation is China. And the unchecked rise of an assertive Beijing is surely not in their core interests. These optics would not have been lost in the Kremlin either.

    However, several roadblocks remain.

    First, a trust-deficit persists due to Tokyo supporting the economic sanctions. Abe will find it daunting to insulate the Russian-Japanese rapprochement from the Moscow-Washington confrontation. Japan remains a key U.S. ally, being the fulcrum of the American rebalance towards Asia-Pacific. The U.S. plans to establish a missile defence in the region will further raise the stakes for the Kremlin.

    Russia is likely to react by upgrading its own military capabilities, including those in the strategically important Kuril Islands. This will likely bury Japanese hopes of a speedy demarcation of these territories. It remains unclear whether Tokyo will then pursue a purely economic engagement. In the same vein, the Russian-Chinese entente can limit the Moscow-Tokyo rapprochement.

    Second, the resolution of the boundary problem will involve compromises. Given the way Abe and Putin have cultivated domestic nationalism, it will require deft handling to arrive at a middle ground. Conversely, their central position in their power hierarchies might enable them to do just that.

    Finally, given the complexities involved, a rapprochement can take wings if Abe and Putin believe that the trade-offs are worth leveraging. That will take a lot more than a few meetings.

    The article was originally published in the Russia Direct.