Russia–Japan Relations in the Era of Trump
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As Russia continues to dominate Washington’s domestic politics and threatens European cohesion on a daily basis, one country has been consistently courting the Kremlin with enthusiasm: Japan. Tokyo has pursued a rapprochement with Moscow ever since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in December 2012. His agenda has survived everything from Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea to its armed intervention in Syria. The upshot has been a belief in Tokyo that a potential breakthrough is near in the Far East’s forgotten frozen conflict — with significant geopolitical implications at both regional and global levels.
How this interacts with the new realities of a Trump administration in Washington and potentially changing Russia–U.S. relations will ultimately determine what type of role Japan can and cannot play in this delicate triangular relationship. Questions remain about how the Japan-U.S. alliance can accommodate any type of breakthrough with Russia and if Washington will seek its own direct rapprochement with Moscow or use Tokyo as a natural bridge. Either way, there has been considerable interest in Russia–Japan relations over the last year in Washington and understanding Tokyo’s perspective will be critical for any chance of improved trilateral relations between Japan, Russia, and the United States in the near future.
Historically, the central issue in Japan–Russia relations has been on the ongoing territorial dispute surrounding the four Kuril Islands, which have been under Russian occupation since the final days of World War II. The islands have come to symbolize the lasting legacy of the Cold War in Asia, where, unlike in Europe, the territorial demarcations of the bygone era remain despite the changed geopolitical situation. Given Abe’s investment in close personal relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin, the two countries appear closer than ever to settling or a least tabling the territorial issues and their frosty past in favor of a broader agenda. However, Tokyo’s chase of Moscow takes place in a broader geopolitical environment that is simultaneously drawing Moscow and Tokyo ever closer and apart.
It was hoped that 2016 would be a watershed year in the history of Russo–Japanese relations that would lead to a breakthrough in the territorial dispute. But the year that began with such high expectations ended with no visible achievements leading to inevitable disappointment — a familiar pattern in bilateral relations between Japan and Russia. Putin and Abe failed to reach a peace deal, let alone a territorial resolution. Yet despite the lack of tangible results, Russia and Japan have now entered a new phase of engagement that is no longer limited to the territorial dispute but also includes the potential of forging a new strategic partnership at both regional and global levels.
Although a grand territorial bargain remains a remote possibility, improved Japan–Russia relations are critical to regional peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. In the short term, North Korea’s growing volatility in recent months offers a strategic opportunity for the two countries to expand their regional cooperation — particularly in relation to China. In the long term, Japan and Russia can address various security challenges from the Far East to Central Asia. These efforts could ultimately pave the way for enhanced dialogue and cooperation between Russia and the West, with Japan bridging the mutual gap toward the eventual restitution of Moscow’s place in the international community. In other words there is now an opportunity for a fundamental transformation of Japan–Russia relations.
Sidelining Asia’s Frozen Conflict
Although the Kuril Islands dispute originated in World War II, it is similar to many frozen conflicts that Russia has exploited as a geopolitical lever in the post-Soviet space, such as the ethnically-Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region. But unlike the post-Soviet frozen conflicts, the four Kuril Islands have rarely attracted global attention beyond occasional Russia–Japan territorial talks — largely due to their geopolitical position at Eurasia’s far eastern extremity.
Moscow and Tokyo became proverbial bedfellows chasing different dreams.
Despite the lack of global attention, Moscow and Tokyo began to recognize the importance of enhancing bilateral relations by looking beyond the disputed islands in the early 2010s. Moscow began to publicly discuss its own “Pivot to Asia” through the lens of development in Siberia and its Far East — crucial to the country’s access to the burgeoning Asian market, including Japan. Indeed, the opportunity cost of perpetually maintaining the Cold War-era territorial dispute was becoming unreasonably high (though control of the four islands remained important for Russia due to their geostrategic location for nuclear submarine forces in the Sea of Okhotsk, which target the west coast of the United States). Likewise, Tokyo was beginning to see the geopolitical benefits of improving ties with Moscow to balance against Beijing’s expanding maritime ambitions. Blindly adhering to Cold War-era principles, such as the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration that detailed the handover of two disputed islands to Japan after a peace treaty, made little sense given a fundamentally different geopolitical environment. In short, Moscow and Tokyo became proverbial bedfellows chasing different dreams.
Against this backdrop, Putin initiated overtures in May 2012 with his famous allusions to his favorite judo terms, “hikiwake (draw)” and “hajime (begin),” signaling his desire to overcome the territorial impasse and expand bilateral cooperation. Tokyo failed to respond due to its own domestic political inertia after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami disaster, which took place during the rule of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Abe’s re-emergence in December 2012 reinvigorated Japan’s political leadership and immediately resulted in the resumption of bilateral talks, culminating in a summit in Moscow in April 2013. The summit forged a solid personal bond at the leadership level, a much-needed element for bilateral relations with history of frequently being eroded by mutual suspicion. It also significantly expanded areas of bilateral cooperation with the launch of 2+2 meeting of foreign and defense ministers — a prerogative usually accorded only to treaty allies.
The tectonic shift that followed the Ukraine crisis in 2014 proved to be severe enough to engulf even the Far East’s budding “bromance.” Tokyo aligned itself with the West in imposing economic sanctions on Russia — a move that Moscow may have expected but by which it was nonetheless annoyed and frustrated. Moscow’s indignation led Putin to declare: “[t]he ball is in Japan’s court” — a reference to Tokyo’s desire for a deal on the territorial issue. Implied in Putin’s quip was Moscow’s desire to exploit the territorial talks with Tokyo to undermine the West and specifically G7 solidarity. But despite this new short-term imperative guiding Russia’s engagement with Japan, fundamental geopolitical interests largely remained intact on both sides and led the two countries to keep communication channels open while waiting for an opportune moment to resume talks.
Abe’s new agenda facilitated a qualitative shift in bilateral talks.
That moment came in 2016. The year kicked off with Abe, who was chairing the G7, calling for “constructive engagement” with Russia on global security challenges — particularly Syria’s ongoing civil war. In an unprecedented move, the Japanese prime minister immediately went on to secure an “unofficial” summit with Putin in Sochi while disregarding Washington’s repeated objections. The summit, which took place in May 2016, officially introduced Abe’s proposed “new approach” to the bilateral relations that aimed to expand areas of cooperation through increased economic engagement. Abe’s new agenda thus facilitated a qualitative shift in bilateral talks by essentially bypassing the territorial dispute and promoting a strategic partnership with Russia. This time Putin’s reply was a resounding “Da.”
Abe’s overtures continued in earnest throughout the remainder of the year, leading to three additional summits in just four months. He offered an economic olive branch totaling more than $30 billion in total investment, though it produced no visible progress in resolving or tabling the territorial dispute during the highly-anticipated visit of Putin to Japan in December 2016. The optics of the visit and possibility of sidelining the territorial issues to focus on areas of common interest in the new era of Trump were particularly important for Abe’s domestic constituency. Although the outcome of the December summit ended up drawing considerable criticism in Japan, the two countries did significantly expand areas of cooperation, including the resumption of the 2+2 dialogue that had been suspended since its first meeting in 2013 because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Abe’s “new approach” in 2016 thus administered a decisive blow to the specter of the Cold War haunting Russia and Japan even after 1991. As a result, despite the growing distance between NATO and Russia, Japan has thus emerged as the only G7 member to expand areas of strategic cooperation with Moscow while preserving Western solidarity centered on economic sanctions. In short, Russia and Japan agreed to disagree and to focus on forging strategic relations by essentially shelving the territorial question for the first time in postwar history.
The two countries’ economic commitment to the four Kuril Islands remains highly dubious as the main investment project for the disputed territories discussed during the December 2016 summit was reportedly a potential U.S.–Russia–Japan trilateral casino venture on Iturup involving Trump’s American and Russian business connections. Given candidate Trump’s open hostility toward Japan, the ability to deal with President Trump from a deal-making and pragmatic point of view would strengthen Abe’s hand, particularly given a potential alignment on their views of Russia as being far less of a threat than China. Moreover, maintaining the dispute would actually serve Washington’s and Tokyo’s geostrategic interests because the four islands would hypothetically fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S.–Japan alliance providing a real-time counter-checking of Moscow’s nuclear submarine strategy in the Sea of Okhotsk that could not be maintained if the islands were separated into spheres of influence. In short, the Kuril Islands have lost the significance they had during the Cold War. All that remains is a dubious sense of national pride that the two countries must be willing to sacrifice in exchange for strategic cooperation.
There is now an opportunity to go beyond Abe’s “new approach” — designed to overcome the territorial impasse — and create a new framework in which Japan would be a bridge between the West and Russia. The Russian–Japan 2+2 dialogue would be the starting point for such a new framework. This particular bilateral platform allows the two countries to operationalize the emerging strategic partnership forged at the leadership level. Indeed, the first 2+2 meeting in 2013 produced various operational-level agreements ranging from regular defense minister meetings to joint counter-terrorism exercises. Such operational-level engagement has huge long-term potential — in particular in addressing the challenge of the rise of China. Moreover, it would also solidify the bilateral relations beyond the personal dynamics hitherto led by Putin and Abe. Indeed, it would institutionalize the two countries’ emerging strategic partnership at a time in which political scandals constantly threaten leaders, including Abe himself.
Enhancing Strategic Cooperation
One priority for Japan–Russia cooperation is North Korea — which will not be easy given divergent viewpoints. Pyongyang, which is now carrying out ballistic missile tests on a near-daily basis, has been pivoting away from Beijing in recent years. Chinese companies operating in North Korea have been expropriated and pro-Chinese officials have been purged — most notably Jang Song Thaek in 2013. This has also driven a wedge between Kim Jong-un and Chinese president Xi Jinping, leading to further volatility at a time when other political developments had already been undermining global stability. Creating an opportunity out of this crisis will require closer alignment and cooperation not just between the United States and Japan, but also with Russia, which has traditionally had a different view of the Korean peninsula.
Moscow does not want either a U.S.-led reunification of the two Koreas or a bankrupt North Korea under China’s watch.
However, Russia may well hold the key to stabilizing Asia’s emerging nuclear powder keg. Moscow has increasingly consolidated its position as Pyongyang’s alternative patron as it shifts away from China. Unlike China, Russia does not have a military alliance with North Korea and mostly focuses on politico-economic engagement through diplomacy as well as trade and investment. As fluctuating bilateral relations have often disrupted Beijing’s energy supplies to its North Korean neighbor in recent years, Moscow’s steady provision of hydrocarbons from Siberia as well as investments in strategic infrastructure, such as railways, provide the Kremlin with crucial leverage over Pyongyang. But unlike Tokyo and Washington, which have been pushing for further sanctions, Moscow believes further investment is needed. In a country virtually devoid of the hydrocarbons needed for conventional war, Moscow is a significant geopolitical player.
Moscow views the unpredictable, nuclear-armed Pyongyang regime as a nuisance, though it does not want either a U.S.-led reunification of the two Koreas or a bankrupt North Korea under China’s watch. Indeed, China’s growing economic influence on Russia’s buffer zone of Siberia and the Russian Far East has been a major source of consternation for national security circles in Moscow. Finding a way to scale back Beijing’s regional influence while facilitating Russia’s greater participation in the Asian market is in Moscow’s interest and aligns with Tokyo’s worldview as well. It also creates space for greater trilateral cooperation between Japan, Russia, and the United States, which has rarely been tested but may be possible in the Korean context if it can be separated from other regional areas of action.
In particular, given Russia’s emerging role in shaping the future of the Korean peninsula, Tokyo could leverage its budding relations with Moscow to promote trilateral regional cooperation with Washington. As a traditional ally of Washington and emerging confidant of Trump, Abe is uniquely placed to play the role of bridge-builder since domestic politics in Washington will likely prevent Trump from engaging directly with Putin. Given Russia’s relatively marginal military presence on its eastern flank, Moscow has long held abiding concern over Washington’s evolving regional alliance. Most recently, Moscow has again opposed Washington’s efforts to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, which is further complicated by the impeachment of the country’s conservative leader Park Geun-hye. Despite the Kremlin’s repeated protests, THAAD would provide little deterrence against Russia’s nuclear forces. Previous U.S. administrations have failed to effectively communicate this point to Moscow, and questions remain as to Trump’s ability to reach a consensus with his Russian counterpart given ongoing Russia-related domestic scandals.
Japan is now emerging as the only stable communication channel bridging Moscow and Washington.
By contrast, Tokyo has 2+2 mechanisms with both Moscow and Washington and is in a unique position to bridge the perception gap surrounding THAAD. As the future of South Korea’s THAAD deployment increasingly becomes uncertain due to domestic politics, Japan is now emerging as the only stable communication channel bridging Moscow and Washington that can be used to discuss sensitive issues dividing Russia and the West. Chancellor Angela Merkel might have also played this role in the past, but instability in Europe and elections in Germany now make Abe a much more attractive option.
Trilateral cooperation against North Korea would also allow the three countries to address other longer-term strategic issues across the Eurasian landmass. In fact, China’s growing regional influence in recent years has led to an alignment of U.S., Japanese, and Russian interests. In particular, Central Asia has become China’s resource base as its modern transportation and energy pipelines crisscross past dilapidated Soviet-era infrastructure. Moscow, which traditionally wielded geopolitical sway over the region, is now apprehensive about China’s expanding influence in what it views as its sphere of influence. Russia–U.S. security cooperation in Central Asia, backed by geo-economic engagement by Japan, would be a powerful counterweight to Chinese influence in the region. Ultimately, given Moscow’s close relations with Beijing, such trilateral efforts would have to be diffuse and opportunistic. But they could facilitate greater dialogue with China and thus lay the necessary foundation for a successful multilateral solution to a possible Korean crisis — including the collapse of the Kim regime in Pyongyang.
Opportunity for Rapprochement
From cyberspace to the Eurasian steppe, Russia is a resurgent great power that is leading the wave of revisionism against the liberal international order to devastating effects. Many see Russia as the greatest geopolitical threat to the West. Against this backdrop, Japan is emerging as one of the world’s leading champions of the liberal international order while simultaneously forging close ties with Moscow. Because of the rift between Russia and the West, this peculiar relationship is often misunderstood due to divergent goals driving Moscow and Tokyo closer and apart, and the entangled history of the disputed Kuril Islands. But there is now a historic opportunity to elevate the fledgling rapprochement between Japan and Russia beyond territorial talks to include strategic cooperation across the world and ultimately to reintegrate Russia into the international community. In short, Japan is emerging as a potential bridge between Russia and the West that should be leveraged by the new administration in Washington.
Such a new framework creates several possibilities in addressing global security challenges with Russia. First, because the ongoing Japan–Russia rapprochement is largely an initiative led by Abe and Putin, the two countries must institutionalize their achievements. By leveraging bilateral communication channels, including the 2+2 dialogue, such efforts would ensure that the nascent relationship will outlast leadership changes. Second, Japan must act as a bridge between Russia and the United States by boosting trilateral cooperation across Asia’s flashpoints — particularly North Korea. The three countries should focus on addressing China’s regional challenges by expanding their areas of cooperation to include Eurasia and in particular Central Asia.
Finally, such trilateral cooperation should evolve to narrow the widening gap between NATO’s European members and Russia, with the ultimate aim of restoring Moscow as a responsible stakeholder in the international community rather than a destructive revisionist pariah. This long-term objective would simultaneously require the development of next-generation leaders and experts in addition to security cooperation in Asia. Indeed, one of the main impediments to understanding emerging Japan–Russia relations is the Cold war era division of area studies that continues to see Russia through only a European-lens with Japan squarely in the Asian-sphere and never cross-pollinating the two despite the realities on the ground and strong leader relations. Just as Japan is becoming a key player in NATO’s evolving relations in Asia, the future trajectory of the globalizing transatlantic relations must be one of leading cross-regional engagement with Russia through cooperative security and thought leadership devoid of Cold War-era orthodoxies.
 Lionel Barber, “Japan’s Abe calls for Putin to be brought in from the cold,” Financial Times, January 17, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/988d04c2-bcd3-11e5-846f-79b0e3d20eaf.
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