The easing of tensions between Russia and the West is prompting reset of a troubled relationship some 8000 kilometers to the east of Ukraine and Syria in the Asia-Pacific as Tokyo picks up the threads of its interrupted dialogue with Moscow. The Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida traveled to Moscow last Monday for consultations and on Thursday Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev arrived in Tokyo for back-to-back discussions on security issues.

Putin and Abe during a 2013 meeting in Moscow
Putin and Abe during a 2013 meeting in Moscow

The sudden outburst of high-level exchanges between Moscow and Tokyo was much more than symbolic. They were productive and, conceivably, much quiet diplomatic legwork had taken place below the radar. Thus, the Russian-Japanese intergovernmental commission on trade and economy met in Moscow during Kishida’s visit. The two sides agreed to resume the negotiations at deputy foreign minister level on a formal peace treaty that would bring the curtain down on their World-War II hostilities.

Again, a decision has been taken to revive the “2+2” format of the joint meeting of foreign and defense ministers of the two countries. Most important, the moribund idea of a visit by Putin to Japan was revived.

Russia and Japan have been behaving like strangers in the night exchanging glances ever since Japan, a G7 member country and treaty ally of the United States, reluctantly joined its western partners to impose sanctions and suspend talks with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.

Up until then, things were looking good in Russo-Japanese relations like at no time before in recent history. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even attended the inaugural of the 2014 Sochi Olympics despite the day being the so-called Northern Territories Day, the day Tokyo traditionally observes to reassert its territorial claim over the Kurile Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk, which Russia seized from Japan at the end of World War II.

The territorial dispute has prevented the two countries from concluding a formal peace treaty and inherently limited the scope for expansion of bilateral cooperation. However, the return of President Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin in 2012 had raised fond hopes in Abe’s mind. One of the most significant remarks on the foreign policy front made by Putin during his 2012 presidential campaign related to Japan.

Putin had suggested that Russia could seek a compromise with Japan on the basis of a hikiwake, a judo term meaning a draw. Abe swiftly followed up and by early 2013 the two leaders had agreed to accelerate negotiations “to work out a solution acceptable to both countries over the peace treaty issue” at a summit meeting in Moscow.

Then the roof came crashing down when in March 2014, under American pressure Tokyo fell in line with the western partners’ collective decision to isolate Russia.

But if the two countries could pick up the threads of their dialogue no sooner than the tensions in Russia’s ties with the West began showing incipient signs of easing, that is only because Japan was all along manifestly skeptical about the wisdom of “isolating” Russia – and Moscow understood Tokyo’s predicament. In sum, while both Moscow and Tokyo did plenty of grandstanding, they also kept at the back of the mind that it is in their mutual interest to engage constructively as soon as the tensions over Ukraine eased.

Why is the normalization process so important for the two countries? For both sides, there are practical reasons as well as geopolitical considerations. Of course, Japan seeks access to Russia’s vast natural resources and market, while Moscow is keen on attracting Japanese investment and technology, especially in the development of Siberian and Far Eastern regions.

While Tokyo appreciates that a Sino-Russian alliance is improbable and that Moscow nor Beijing seeks to form a “bloc,” it is nonetheless wary of their growing collusion that could incrementally shift the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific in favor of China (which is also forging closer relations with South Korea.)

As for the Moscow pundits, their pet dream is of Russia performing as a classic “balancer” in the politics of the Asia-Pacific. They do not accept that Japan can ever be a surrogate of the US.  The détente with Japan gives gravitas to Russia’s normalization process with the West, in turn eroding the US’ containment strategy against it.

While the Ukraine tensions forced the Kremlin to accelerate a “Look East” policy orientated towards China, the Moscow elites’ preferred choice has always been the modernization of Russia as a European power. The détente with Japan also fits in with this paradigm.

However, Russo-Japanese détente has its limitations, too. There is a high degree of strategic ambivalence in the hikiwake that Putin had spoken about. Clearly, a resolution of the territorial dispute will be a major coup for Abe. But then, everything depends on how Putin plays his cards.

In the recent past, if anything, Russia has been strengthening the military assets on the Kurile Islands and announced a billion dollar development program. Brushing aside Japanese protests, leaders from Moscow have been descending on the disputed islands as a matter of policy, asserting Russian sovereignty. The point is, Russian blood has been spilt in the Asia-Pacific during World War II and Russian nationalism will militate against handing back the Kurile Islands to Japan on a platter. But a compromise formula has proved elusive so far.

Meanwhile, the geopolitics of the Arctic region has greatly increased the strategic importance of the Sea of Okhotsk. Equally, the deepening of the US-Japanese military alliance impacts Russian interests, notwithstanding assurances to the contrary by Washington and Tokyo. At the joint press conference with Kishida in Moscow last Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov candidly spoke of the problem areas. Lavrov said,

  • Naturally, we have been watching the evolution of Japan’s approaches to ensuring its security and to related clauses in its Constitution. We have taken note of the concern being voiced by neighbouring countries over these tendencies, including the [Japanese] Cabinet’s decision to ease restrictions on collective self-defence. This is happening against the backdrop of a powerful buildup of the US military presence and US activities in Northeast Asia. It has to do, above all, with Washington’s plans to boost its anti-missile potential in the Asia-Pacific region, which is an inseparable part of the US global missile defence project. Today, Fumio Kishida and I spoke of the destabilising effect the US global missile defense plans have on international security. We have been watching this project, including from the point of view of the US striving to involve Japan … in the Asia-Pacific missile defense. At the same time, we are witnessing a renewal of the principles of defense cooperation between Japan and the United States with signs of what I would call a “nuclear profile” beginning to be visible.

Having said that, the stunning thing still would be the timing of the two high-level exchanges between Russia and Japan – in the same week of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s arrival in Washington on Friday on a high-profile state visit. To be sure, Moscow and Tokyo will be monitoring closely the “new model of major country relationship” between the US and China and how the ensuing “win-win” cooperation impacts the politics of the Asia-Pacific.

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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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