Japan-Russia Ties/Johnson’s Russia List 2014-#34

Japan Map

Subject: RE: Johnson’s Russia List 2014-#34/Japan-Russia Ties
Date: Wed, 19 Feb 2014
From: Joseph Ferguson <jodyferg@earthlink.net>

Regarding an article posted on the JRL on the 18th of February (#34) from the Moscow Times, “Japan-Russia Ties: An Opportunity for the U.S.” by Jeffrey Mankoff, I wanted to post the following comments. I know this topic seems peripheral at best given current events, but I wish to highlight a few things.

I agree with the author’s assessment that a thaw in Japanese-Russian relations could be beneficial to the United States, and I also feel that the U.S. should be more active in promoting trilateral cooperative efforts, to a certain point. And I agree that in this era of bad U.S.-Russian relations, it is worth exploring new avenues of cooperation, in different arenas than Europe or the Middle East. But given the current state of U.S.-Russian relations, trying to develop a trilateral strategic cooperative effort aimed at China-though a commendable long term strategy-would fail. If Tokyo wishes to arrange a strategic rapprochement with Moscow at this point, then they’d be well advised to steer clear of Washington, which is seen as anything but a partial arbiter.

Elsewhere the article has several inaccuracies and mistaken assumptions.

First off, the author describes the disputed territory as “uninhabited.” As recently as 2005 (when the last census was taken, I believe), there were more than 17,000 residents on three of the disputed islands. Although the number has probably decreased some since then, a report as recent as 2011 listed the population as 16,400. Among these are 3,500 troops from the 18th Artillery Division. A number that is not insignificant. And what to do with these residents should territory change hands has been a major sticking point in past negotiations between Japan and Russia.

The author also points out that Medvedev “threatened to militarize” the disputed islands. In fact, Russia has made concrete steps to modernize the forces and facilities on the disputed isles, such as renovating the airstrip at the Buryvestnik airbase on Iturup to accommodate heavy Il-76 transport planes which could facilitate troop movements to the region. The Russian Defense Ministry also indicated that it would deploy at least one of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships (that it is has purchased from France) to these waters. A prominent defense analyst in Moscow points out that this is aimed primarily at the U.S. presence in the region. As for the island garrisons on Iturup (Etorofu) and Kunashir, the MOD is currently strengthening them by means of a state-of-the-art communications system, electronic warfare-capable equipment, missiles, and a radar base. All this pales in comparison to what the U.S. deploys in Japan, but it is meant to modernize what the MOD sees as a weak flank to U.S power in the Pacific.

Also, the author refers to Moscow’s concern about China’s “growing strength.” He goes on to say that, “Both Japan and Russia favor improving bilateral relations in large part to address their respective concerns about China.” While this latent fear no doubt exists among some of the elite in Moscow (and in the Russian Far East), there has been no official Russian statement (nor even a tacit acknowledgment from officials or academics that I have dealt with) that China is a threat to Russia. In fact, the author may harbor the same illusions that the Japanese do, who feel/hope that Russia will lean toward Japan out of fear and a desire to balance against China. The Kremlin continues to view democratic movements in former Soviet republics and in Eastern Europe as the greatest threat to regime stability. China is seen as a distant, future threat. Up front and for now, the United States and its potential to influence instability within Russia is seen as the greatest threat to the Kremlin. As long as Japan is seen in Moscow as a pliant U.S. ally, any trilateral interaction between Moscow, Tokyo, and Washington at this stage might be cordial, but would be bereft of substance.

The author also fails to mention that Moscow, in the wake of PM Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, looks disapprovingly upon what they see as revisionism and an irredentist movement within the Japanese political elite concerning World War II, which after all is the genesis of the current territorial impasse.

The author rightly points out the benefits of energy cooperation between Japan and Russia, but currently this is a bilateral affair. Russia stepped in to fill Japanese energy needs in the months after the Fukushima disaster, but LNG is a short-term solution. More promising are the prospects for a gas pipeline linking Sakhalin and Hokkaido. This would mark a true departure for economic and political relations.

Again, I applaud the call for the U.S. to support the Japan-Russia rapprochement, but any such effort that tries to capitalize on the fear of a rising China will be dead on arrival. Instead, the U.S. should encourage softer bilateral and trilateral interaction such as the badly-needed development of the transportation and energy infrastructure in the Russian Far East, the encouragement of SAREX between coast guards, fisheries cooperation, cooperative air-space dialogue in the North Pacific and the Bering Strait, economic development of the Arctic, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) cooperation between the three militaries. This would lay the groundwork for trust and further dialogue, which may eventually help convince both sides of the necessity of a territorial settlement, and a final conclusion of a peace treaty. Only then could relations sustain a strategic character of which the author writes.