Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visits the Yasny fish processing factory on the southern Kuril island of Iturup on July 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / Dmitry Astakhov / Sputnik

The recently published annual Defense of Japan white paper identifies the US as Japan’s “only ally” and the need to protect Taiwan if it is threatened by China.

If read between the lines, it is a pragmatic expression of strategic clarity in the post-Shinzo Abe Japan’s geo-strategic posture. Japan acknowledges that it has no allies in its neighborhood and is willing to accept Taiwan as a quasi-protectorate. 

As evident from Russian Ambassador to Japan Mikhail Galuzin’s comments earlier this year, Russia does not see Japan as a threat, but is concerned about its security cooperation with the US. Despite this, Japan is on an ill-advised path of antagonizing Russia, paving the way for China and Russia to conflate their interests against Japan.

On July 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the permanent members of the Russian Security Council. After the meeting, it became apparent that an “unprecedented plan“ was in the works for engaging Japan in economic activities on the Kurils.

The plan was broadly hinted at by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin during his visit to Iturup island on July 26 and involves a new regime of tax exemptions and setting up a free customs zone on the Kuril Islands. 

Until the “unprecedented plan” was hinted at, the visit was only being seen as aimed at enticing Sakhalin Oblast residents to vote for the United Russia party, to which both Mishustin and Putin belong, in parliamentary elections next month. 

The reactions to Mishustin’s visit by the Japanese government, diplomats and press can only be described as a tantrum meant to assuage domestic constituencies, with outrage trumping good sense.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato in no uncertain terms called the visit “extremely regrettable.” After Kato’s comments, Galuzin was summoned by the Japanese Foreign Ministry and issued a diplomatic protest over the visit, which Galuzin called “inappropriate” and refused to accept.

On the same day, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Japanese Ambassador to Russia Toyohisa Kozuki for a meeting with Deputy Foreign Ministers Igor Morgulov and Sergei Ryabkov

During the meeting with Morgulov, Kozuki was issued a reciprocal diplomatic protest. Detailing the protest, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s press release spoke of “unfriendly steps taken by Japan in context of territorial claims to” Russian territory and “urged” Japan “not to slide into a destructive line in bilateral relations.” 

The meeting with Ryabkov involved a broader discussion “on topical issues of mutual interest of global and regional security,” the strategic signal from the Russian side being that they do not see Russia-Japan bilateral relations as a zero-sum game with the Kuril Islands issue as the bottom line. 

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on July 29 also reportedly heard parliamentarians voice their anger at “Japan’s failing policy toward Russia.”

Many prominent Japanese media outlets also featured scathing criticism of Mishustin’s visit and some even took a very hawkish line in their commentary and policy recommendations on dealing with Russia.

 The Asahi Shimbun in an editorial commented that the new proposal could create a situation where Japan might be left behind as other countries enter the economy of the Kuril Islands and the Russian Far East.

The article also lamented the Abe-era outreaches to Russia and declared that there is a need for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration to accept that Japan’s diplomacy toward Russia has been a failure and it has to restart its efforts from scratch.   

Hokkaido Shimbun declared that Mishustin’s visit was a signal that “Russia was showing off its effective control of the islands” and that “it is a historical fact that the four northern Islands” are Japanese.

The article also chided the Suga administration for “not taking steps to resolve the territorial dispute” and highlighted the lack of meetings between the Russian and Japanese foreign ministers. Worse yet, the paper also said the current course of action is “being taken advantage of by the Russian side.”

An editorial in Sankei called Mishustin’s visit “an unforgivable outrage during the Tokyo Olympics.” The article recommended that measures such as sanctioning Russian officials entering the Kurils and expulsion of Russian diplomats should be undertaken. 

Yomiuri proclaimed that if Japan gives a pass to Russia and adopts an ambiguous response, it will encourage China to provoke Japan further over the Senkaku Islands territorial dispute. 

Interestingly, Beijing also commented on the Kuril Islands dispute in a way that can only be understood as supporting Moscow’s position that the Kurils are Russian territory as a result of the Second World War.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, in reply to a question by Global Times during a press briefing, said: “This is a bilateral issue between Russia and Japan and should be properly handled by the two sides. At the same time, it is China’s consistent belief that the outcomes of the victorious Anti-Fascist War should be earnestly respected and upheld.”

The comment is likely a harbinger to a future where Russia and China may increasingly conflate their security interests and treat Japan as a common adversary, including over the Senkaku and Kuril territorial issues.

While acknowledging the proliferating security cooperation between Russia and China, the Defense of Japan white paper hints at no clear vision to deter it.

Japan should seriously consider whether its interests are served best by growing even closer to the US and the West without any care about alienating Russia. Japan’s prosperity is linked to stability in the Sea of Japan-Pacific Russia region just as much as the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea.

Aditya Pareek

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.