Chinese tanks and servicemen are seen their way to the Vostok-2018 military exercises at Zabaikalsk. Photo: AFP/ Evgeny Yepanchintsev / Sputnik
Chinese tanks and servicemen on their way to the Russia-led Vostok-2018 military exercises at Zabaikalsk. Photo: AFP / Evgeny Yepanchintsev / Sputnik

As the mighty Vostok 2018 exercise unrolls across the vast spaces of Eastern Russia and the seas beyond, elsewhere in the region, the reaction is muted. The upgrade in the Beijing-Moscow military partnership has ramifications for Japan, but fewer for Southeast Asia, where China and Russia have fewer alignments.

Prof William Brooks at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC reports not seeing any coverage of the wargames in Japanese media. “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is hamstrung by his own diplomatic strategies toward China and Russia that take priority, as well as by the dwindling strategic presence of the US in the region,” he said, via email. “The Abe administration is completely involved in disaster management after a series of devastating typhoons, and a serious earthquake in Hokkaido.”

As a result of the disasters, Japan’s Self Defense Forces cancelled a joint exercise with Australia, while Abe had to interrupt his drive for reelection. His Liberal Democratic Party chooses a new leader on Sept. 20.

Abe, in fact, has been cozying up to both Moscow and Beijing. “These efforts are paying off, though more so with China than with Russia,” said Brooks. “The ultimate goal of a peace treaty and resolution of the [Kuril Islands] territorial issue with Russia [is] as elusive as ever.”

Yet Brooks indicated that, behind closed doors in Tokyo, there may be unease – but no counter-action. “Nowhere is there an articulated diplomatic or security strategy to counter such an alarming trend,” he said. “Abe is clinging to his diplomacy of dealing with the two powers on separate tracks, for the sake of national interest and not as part of a global or regional strategy masterminded by the US.

“Trumpian policy across the region may be prompting the rising accord between Beijing and Moscow. In fact, by lumping together China and Russia as adversarial nations in the US’ 2017 National Security Strategy, Washington may have hastened the rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow,” Brooks said. Both countries are also facing US economic pressure: trade pressure against China, sanctions against Russia.

A dual regional threat to Tokyo

Abe’s meetings at the ongoing Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok are challenging. He must not only finesse Russian President Vladimir Putin, he must also be all smiles with Chinese President Xi Jinping to ensure their upcoming summit in Tokyo goes ahead. The latter task will not be easy, given Beijing’s expansive policies and the unpredictability of Abe’s key ally.

“China wants to modify the status quo in ways that will undermine Japan’s influence and status,” said Prof. Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. “There has been a partial thaw in the permafrost, but relations are not especially warm. Kowtowing to an erratic and unreliable Trump has not worked out well [for Japan].”

Meanwhile, both China and Russia are united in a grand strategic convergence aimed at Japan.

“Both China and Russia have historical animosities with Tokyo. Contemporary contentious issues remain, such as the Kuril Islands between Japan and Russia, and East China Sea disputes between Japan and China,” said Swee Lean Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, via email.

“Both Beijing and Moscow are wary of Japan’s defense buildup, especially where it concerns missile defense and how that factors into the overall US military equation in Northeast Asia. These are reasons why Japan would watch the Sino-Russian wargames with consternation, since these directly impinge upon its security.”

It is not just Japan per se. Both Beijing and Moscow have fired arrows at Abe himself.

“China has reminded him to do more to improve their relationship. Russia is also chiming in on Japan’s defense buildup. Just recently, Moscow chastised Tokyo for not showing remorse over World War 2 and even issued a veiled threat concerning the envisaged peace treaty that Japan has long wanted to sign with Russia,” said Koh. “Any Sino-Japanese rapprochement is nothing more than mostly superficial, as is the case between Japan and Russia. Not long ago, Japan viewed Russia’s continued military buildup [on the Kuriles] with huge consternation – something Putin is not about to roll back.”

This complex convergence of factors means the Sino-Russian military nexus currently on display at Vostok 2018 has significance for Japanese security. But politically, the situation plays into Abe’s hands. His biggest goal has long been shifting Japan to a less passive pacifist constitution. Rising external threats provide justification for him to do exactly that.

ASEAN: Which side are you on?

Over the long term, ASEAN seems more likely to shift toward Japan (and the US) than toward China.

The regional grouping, which has no unified defense establishment, may not appear to have a horse in this race as regards China-Russia cooperation, for ASEAN member states do not view Russia and China in the same light.

“Russia has longstanding friends in Southeast Asia who it cannot afford to alienate for pragmatic and traditional reasons, and Vietnam is a prime example,” said Koh. “This means Russia has to play the cards extremely carefully in Southeast Asia, and not be regarded as working alongside China to destabilize peace and stability in the area, even if this is otherwise the case in Northeast Asia.”

In Northeast Asia, both China and Russia have territorial disputes with Japan, and are sympathetic toward North Korea, as it faces off against their strategic rival, the United States. In Southeast Asia, China and several states are at odds in the South China Sea, making Russia’s position viz-a-viz China delicate in the region.

While Moscow claims not territory in the South China Sea, territorial disputes and the massive economic power Beijing wields have generated unease throughout ASEAN about an expansive China. Witness, for example, Malaysia’s recent pushback of China on several large-scale projects. As a result, its strategic partnerships in Southeast Asia are slow moving.

“Defense and security engagements between ASEAN and China have so far not progressed at a rate that Beijing would desire,” said Koh. “Sure, China now sells more arms including high-end items such as warships to SE Asian clients, and there are new bilateral exercises… but  they do not usually go beyond symbolism.”

In the long term, Koh expects ASEAN countries to maintain and deepen defense and security engagements with the US, as well as Japan and Australia.

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