Gang of Two: Russia and Japan Make a Play for the Pacific

On November 2, Russia and Japan held their first-ever “two plus two” meeting, which brought together their respective foreign and defense ministers in Tokyo to discuss security cooperation. The meeting grabbed few headlines, but was far from routine: such gatherings are typically reserved for close allies, and for most of their modern history, Moscow and Tokyo have been anything but.

Now, however, the two countries find themselves linked by a shared predicament in the Asia-Pacific. Both are secondary players in a region overshadowed by an increasingly assertive China, which has not hesitated to push against the boundaries of its neighbors. New ties between Russia and Japan would mark not only a breakthrough in their relations but also a significant shift in Northeast Asia’s political dynamic. Since the 1950s, U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea have dominated regional security. Russia and China thawed their frosty relationship in the 1990s and signed a friendship treaty in 2001, but China’s rise has increased tensions in every regional relationship.

To be sure, Russia and Japan are not natural security partners. In the twentieth century, they fought two wars against each other, first in 1904­­–05, and again in 1945. Japan seized territory from Russia in the first; Russia seized territory from Japan in the second. In the following decades, the two countries largely kept their diplomatic distance, though trade between them blossomed in the 2000s. 

Yet there have been many small, albeit largely unsuccessful, attempts to improve bilateral relations over the past 20 years. These took the form of efforts to resolve a territorial dispute over what Tokyo calls its Northern Territories: three islands — Etorofu (Iturup in Russian), Kunashiri, and Shikotan — and a group of islets, the Habomais, which the Soviet Union took from Japan in 1945. The disputed islands lie at the southern tip of the Kuril Islands, which extend from Japan’s northernmost territory of Hokkaido to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The dispute is one of the main reasons that Russia and Japan have been unable, after almost 75 years, to conclude a formal peace treaty to end World War II.

In the 1990s, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin famously promised — and failed — to settle the issue and sign the peace treaty. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, during their power-sharing tandem as prime minister and president, signaled new willingness to negotiate in 2009, but the positive momentum halted when Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso asserted in a press conference that Russia had illegally occupied the islands in 1945. By 2010, despite a visit to Tokyo by Putin, relations had soured to such an extent that Medvedev felt no qualms about making the first Russian presidential visit to the disputed islands (his much-publicized tour included taking “personal” photographs of some of the coastal sights). And in 2011, Russia indulged in a series of military exercises on and around the islands and declared that it would enhance its military deployments there. Bilateral relations seemed to reach an impasse. But shortly after Putin’s September 2011 announcement that he intended to return to the presidency, he indicated in meetings with senior Japanese officials that Russia sought an improvement in bilateral relations. Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met numerous times thereafter in what officials described as increasingly “warm and friendly” encounters. And this past April, Abe made the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to Moscow in a decade.

Japan has good reasons for wanting to transform its relationship with Russia. Tokyo has openly expressed serious fears of a military confrontation with Beijing over China’s claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. And Japan is uncertain about how its strategic ally, the United States, would ultimately respond to a major military incident there. Chinese rhetoric on Japan has taken an increasingly aggressive tone; Japanese military atrocities against Chinese civilians during World War II are a favorite topic. There is still a political consensus in Japan that clashing with China would be ruinous for both sides and must be avoided at all costs. But even so, Japan wants to prepare for the worst, particularly because its relations with South Korea are still dogged by unresolved issues from Japan’s World War II occupation of the peninsula and its relations with North Korea remain hostile.

Russia’s position is rather different. Putin has declared China a strategic partner, and Moscow adamantly refuses to acknowledge any significant differences with Beijing. Nonetheless, two key episodes in 2012­–13 revealed deep-seated Russian anxiety about China’s long-term ambitions. In the summer of 2012, a massive Chinese icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, undertook a historic expedition to the Arctic. As the Snow Dragon sailed into the Sea of Okhotsk, Russia launched military exercises in the region — perfectly timed to coincide with the icebreaker’s passage. As the vessel passed through the straits between Russia’s Sakhalin Island and Japan, the Russian military suddenly decided to test some of its anti-ship missiles on Sakhalin.

The second episode, in July 2013, was particularly unsettling for Moscow: the first appearance of Chinese naval vessels in the Sea of Okhotsk. Five Chinese warships, which had been engaged in a joint exercise with the Russian navy, unexpectedly took the scenic route back to their home port. They cruised south of Sakhalin, through the Kuril Islands chain, and finally in a circle around Japan. The route set off alarm bells in both Russia and Japan, even though the ships remained entirely in international waters and sailed north of the disputed islands. Hours after the Chinese ships had moved into the Sea of Okhotsk, the Russian Ministry of Defense mobilized the largest land and sea military exercise in Russia’s Eastern Military District since the end of the Cold War. Putin flew to Chita, close to Russia’s land border with China, and then to Sakhalin, to personally review the maneuvers.

These episodes seem to have pushed Russia and Japan to step up the effort to resolve their disputes. After the Snow Dragon voyage, Moscow championed observer status for Japan on the Arctic Council, and pointedly ignored China’s long-standing bid for the same status. The two plus two meeting was the next big step forward for both sides. The major play could come in 2014, when Putin is slated to visit Japan after the Sochi Winter Olympics. Putin publicly supported Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 summer games — even going so far as to promise Russia’s votes on the International Olympic Committee to Japan well in advance of the selection. In the meantime, Tokyo is parsing Putin’s pronouncements for any indication that Moscow is preparing a formula for the Northern Territories dispute that will satisfy the range of vested interests in Japan. There are also hints in Tokyo that Japan will modify its own, often rigid, stance on the issue to move things forward.

Although the two countries have demonstrated their political will to reconcile, a real partnership between Russia and Japan is hard to envisage. Both countries are looking for ways to enhance their respective positions in the Asia-Pacific, but not to create binding commitments. Russia is scrambling to assert its sovereignty over the continental shelf in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Arctic before China turns its exploratory forays into a more permanent presence. Beijing is building a sister ship to the Snow Dragon that it plans to launch in 2014. Japan would simply like at least one more warm and friendly relationship in Northeast Asia to complement its alliance with the United States — even if that means that Russia stays firmly on the sidelines in the event of a clash over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Neither Russia nor Japan wants to take new risks. Settling a major territorial dispute with Japan would bolster Russia’s maritime claims and reduce both sides’ vulnerability to Chinese attempts to play them off against each other. But given the complexity of balancing China and other regional players, both countries will find it difficult to pursue a consistent course. Indeed, for Russia, inconsistency is an integral part of its foreign policy strategy, particularly under Putin. Moscow wants its counterparts to remain confused about its intentions. The Kremlin purportedly suggested the two plus two meeting, for example, but then asked Tokyo to make the official request so as to minimize any diplomatic blowback from Beijing.

Having stood so firmly by its happy talk on China, Russia is not ready to change its rhetoric. In discussions with Japan, Russia has repeatedly stressed the importance of inviting China to participate in any regional exercises that might come out of the new agreements. Russia also maintains its assertive military posture against Japan, and regularly sends Russian aircraft close to Japanese airspace. These displays of force are a useful signal to the United States, as well as to China, that Russia still means business in the region and will defend its territory. The displays are likely to continue even as Moscow and Tokyo grow closer. Alliances may be shifting in the Asia-Pacific, but these regional relationships will remain opaque and unpredictable for some time to come.