The Impact of Japan-Russian Tensions on a New Pacific Strategy


2012-09-04 By Richard Weitz

The United States should make a greater effort to help Japan and Russia reduce their territorial tensions.

Whatever its causes, the dispute prevents these two countries from aligning together to advance their common security and economic interests, which are also shared by the United States.

When Boris Yeltsin visited Japan in 1993, expectations were high that bilateral relations would strengthen with the end of the Cold War, as had occurred with Russia’s western neighbors. The two governments signed a joint statement calling for closer Russia-Japan cooperation.

This 1993 Tokyo Declaration defined the common principles that would govern bilateral peace treaty negotiations. For example, the two sides agreed to try to resolve the issue of the four islands’ attribution on the basis of historical and legal facts. They also committed to adhere to the principles of law and justice.

Russia and Japan clearly do not see eye to eye on key issues. But a Russian-Japanese working relationship may be required to deal with the assertiveness of the PRC in the Pacific and beyond. Credit Image: Bigstock

In 1995 Moscow and Tokyo decided to collaborate in building suitable waste processing facilities, including a nuclear waste storage ship financed by Russia, Japan, and the United States. Japan has since contributed millions of dollars to international efforts to dismantle decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines, which contained spent radioactive fuel and other radioactive waste, located in the Russian Far East.

Since 1998, moreover, Russia and Japan have conducted joint search-and-rescue exercises in the Sea of Japan. More recently, the two governments have conducted an enhanced Strategic Dialogue, at the level of Russia’s First Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, regarding their overlapping regional security interests since January 2007.

For various reasons, this limited security cooperation has failed to expand into a more comprehensive and enduring rapprochement between the two countries.

In addition, the two sides have continued to criticize each other’s defense cooperation with third parties.

The Japanese have worried that Russia’s vast military sales to the PRC are enhancing the Chinese military’s ability to project power against Taiwan and potentially Japan.

For their part, Russian officials have objected to the growing U.S.-Japanese cooperation in developing ballistic missile defenses, which they believe helps advance American aspirations for constraining a global missile defense architecture that could threaten Russia.

During his October 2007 visit to Japan, Foreign Minister Lavrov told Kyodo News that, “Japanese-U.S. cooperation in missile defense is a cause of concern for us. We are against the creation of a missile defense system as a means of achieving military superiority. The deployment of such a system will spur an arms race both regionally and globally.”

Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura dismissed Lavrov’s complaints, insisting that Japan’s BMD programs are defensive in nature, aimed only at helping defend Japan from foreign threats, which do not include Russia. He also denied that the increased tripartite security cooperation among Japan, Australia, and the United States—which some Russian analysts had also seen as worrisome—is directed against Russia or any other third party.

More directly, the Russia-Japan sovereignty dispute has engendered recurring mutual recriminations about alleged territorial violations. Russian ships regularly detain Japanese sailors who attempt to fish in the waters surrounding the disputed islands, charging them with violating Russia’s maritime boundaries.

In August 2007, a Russian coast guard ship killed a crew member of a Japanese fishing boat with a warning shot aimed at the vessel.

In January 2010, a Russian coast guard helicopter created multiple bullet holes in the hulls of two Japanese fishing ships when they ignored warning shots after the vessels entered Russia’s territorial waters off Kunashir Island.

In turn, the Japanese government has alleged that Russian military aircraft have periodically violated Japan’s air space. An incident occurred in February 2008, when a Russian Tupolev Tu-95 bomber, ignoring the warnings of the Japanese fighter aircraft sent to intercept it, flew over the uninhabited island of Sofugan in the Izu island chain south of Tokyo during a Pacific Ocean exercise.

The 2008 edition of Japan’s annual defense white paper observers that, “Russian military operations seem to be increasingly more active in the vicinity of Japan.” The report notes that these exercises occur more frequently and involve a wider range of air and naval weapons systems than in recent years.

Similarly, the 2010 edition of Japan’s annual defense white paper repeats that, “Russian military operations in the vicinity if Japan appear to be increasingly active, including exercises and drills.”

The Japanese Foreign Ministry termed Russia’s Vostok-2010 military exercises—which also broke with precedent by taking place on Iturup, the largest of the four contested islands, in early July—as “extremely regretful.” Thousands of Russian troops as well as dozens of warships and warplanes participated in the drills not far from Japan’s main islands.

The Japanese government joined NATO countries in suspending joint military operations with Russia following the August 2008 Georgia war.

That same year, the Japanese authorities also accused Russian diplomats of spying on the Japanese cabinet. Although Russian representatives denied both accusations, Japanese nationalists used the espionage incident to resume denouncing Moscow for allegedly pursuing hostile policies toward Japan.

Excluding their territorial dispute, Russia and Japan share several geopolitical and economic interests that should make them natural partners, if not allies.

In East Asia, Russia and Japan confront overlapping challenges in the cases of China’s growing economic and military power as well as the North Korea’s nuclear testing and missile launching.

Better ties between Moscow and Tokyo might prove to be the catalyst for a long-anticipated geopolitical realignment that sees them adopt a more guarded approach to the China’s rise by strengthening their bilateral ties.

This repositioning would allow them to concentrate their efforts on matching China’s growing economic and military power. It might also induce the Chinese to moderate their policies towards Russia, Japan, and other countries.

Furthermore, Russia and Japan are striving to become more influential players in the Korean issue. For example, the two Koreas, China, and the United States all expect that these four countries alone would sign any Korean peace treaty, excluding Russia and Japan from even the negotiations of any treaty.

In the economic realm, Japan and Russia are also finding themselves marginalized from the dynamic ASEAN economies, with China and the United States leading the competition for to influence them, among other means, offering competing models for free trade agreements, based on diverging principles and memberships.

More directly, the Japanese would like to expand their access to Russia’s natural resources, especially oil and natural gas, while the Russians would like to secure more Japanese investment to modernize their energy and other industries and to develop the Russian Far East. This Russian region’s lagging development and alienation from Moscow represents a long-term security challenge in the face of China’s growing population and economic-military potential.

Unfortunately, the ongoing territorial dispute has made it difficult for the two countries to pursue these shared interests. At the same time, Korean and Chinese policymakers, who have their own conflicting territorial claims with Tokyo, have done nothing to encourage an enduring Russian-Japanese reconciliation, while U.S. officials have until recently tried to avoid directly intervening in Asian territorial disputes.

An enduring territorial settlement between Russia and Japan would require the advent of either of two conditions, neither of which looks likely to arrive any time soon.

One possibility would be for a Russian government to resume pursuing the now discredited policy Moscow adopted during the early 1990s, when the new Russian Federation was willing to make territorial and other major concessions as gambits to resolve longstanding sources of tension with neighbors. The strategy, which failed, aimed to eliminate those disputes that alienated Moscow from the West and thereby facilitate the Russian Federation’s entry into the Western bloc of countries, which includes Japan.

A second alternate scenario would be for a strong Japanese government to arise that was willing and capable of selling domestically the kind of compromise settlement that Russians have repeatedly demanded—that Tokyo renounce its claims to at least two of the islands in return for a peace treaty with Moscow and evidence that Japan would contribute to Russia’s economic development. This scenario seems more plausible in the long run but unlikely anytime soon, at least during the lifespan of the next U.S. presidential administration.

Neither outcome seems likely to occur in the next few years, but until a strong Japanese government emerges in Tokyo capable of making substantial concessions on the island dispute, Russian leaders have little incentive to compromise—especially now that bilateral economic ties are developing regardless of the sovereignty issue and Japanese leaders are preoccupied with China’s growing military power and assertive territorial claims.

The current Russian position seems well reflected in the statement of RIA Novosti columnist Ilya Kramnik, who says Japanese leaders need to understand “that Japan can gain sovereignty over the islands only if its starts and wins a war against Russia.”

In the long term, one would expect that the Japanese would eventually prove more amenable to making the most concessions because China’s continuing rise is presenting a greater threat to Tokyo’s interests. In addition, the past few years have seen Moscow consolidate its hold over the islands.

The next Japanese coalition government, or perhaps the next generation of Japanese political leaders, may prove more open to pursuing the kind of realpolitik required to yield to Moscow on the islands issue.

The resulting improvement in Russian-Japanese relations would allow Tokyo to concentrate its efforts on matching Beijing’s growing economic and military power. The improvement might also induce the Chinese to moderate their policies towards Japan.

In addition, better ties between Moscow and Tokyo might prove to be the catalyst for a long-anticipated geopolitical realignment that sees Russia adopt a more guarded approach to the PRC’s rise by strengthening ties with China’s neighbors, including Japan.

This repositioning would help manage the potentially disruptive consequences that could result from the emergence of the new superpower along Russia’s eastern borders.