The deferment by Tokyo of a planned visit to Moscow by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (penciled in for August 31-September 1) is being seen as a mark of protest over Russian Prime Minister’s weekend visit to one of the four disputed islands – known as the Southern Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan – which Russia seized even as the curtain was coming down on World War II, and which prevented the two countries from signing a formal peace treaty since.

However, the diplomatic setback has an inevitability, since it is only the latest manifestation of the steady slide in the Russo-Japanese relations 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.

The backdrop of the latest revision of the document, under way since 2013, is no doubt provided by “assertive” China. But there are profound implications for Russia, too. To be sure, Japan is now going to play a more active role in supporting the US-led operations globally.

Specifically, the Guidelines emphasize the importance of 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 collide in Northeast Asia, where the potential for full-scale conflict is greater today. Russia no longer sees the US-Japan alliance as a stabilizing factor in the region; nor is Moscow fancying any longer about its potential role as a ‘balancer’ in the region.

Meanwhile, Russia’s hopes that Japan’s DNA might prompt it to pursue independent foreign policies without excessive dependence on the US alliance system have also been dashed. Tokyo simply fell in line with the US’ regime of sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

Indeed, the specter 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. In fact, 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.

Japan foots the bill. 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.

Indeed, Abe’s push to expand the role of the military (doctrine called collective self-defense) 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, from the Russian perspective, 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. Of course, Moscow’s disquiet does not find forceful articulation – unlike Beijing’s – but the sense of deep disquiet is certainly there.

Clearly, a series of steps Moscow has taken since April fall into perspective. 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

Vladimir Putin confirmed his plans to attend China’s own celebrations in Beijing on September 3; apart from their joint remembrance of history, Putin and Xi 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, on June 9, Russian 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, Medvedev paid a highly publicized visit to the Kurile Islands, disregarding Tokyo’s protest.

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 Global Times 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.

Today, the Russian build-up around the Kurile Islands has a much bigger calculus insofar as it is in anticipation of the full-scale opening of the so-called Northern Sea Route. It is useful to recall that 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.

Russia’s Arctic policy demanded 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 enables Russia to have access to all the oceans of the world.

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. The Pentagon assesses that Russia is currently the world’s most advanced nation in terms of developing the Arctic military infrastructure.

Suffice it to say 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. Thus, a genuine reset of relations with Japan becomes highly problematic.

The much-awaited visit by Putin to Japan may not take place this year. The Russo-Japanese ties may nosedive if Moscow chooses to close ranks with China on the threat posed by the US’ BMD deployments in Japan. Putin’s forthcoming visit to Beijing next week becomes an important signpost of the emergent strategic realignment in the Far East.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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