A Caravan to Nowhere? Russo-Japanese Relations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 59

(Source: Sputnik News)

The present crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs not only impels a much more careful look at the Korean peninsula but also encourages closer scrutiny of the complex interstate relations among the six parties involved in trying to reverse Pyongyang’s nuclear gains. One particularly interesting case is the Russo-Japanese relationship. Indeed, both sides have been discussing or negotiating a rapprochement and normalization for five years with little or nothing to show for it except, possibly, for some transitory and evanescent prestige gains for Russia stemming from the bilateral summit in December 2016 (Japan Times, December 16, 2016).

That pattern of failure and stagnation, despite the present crisis around Korea (see EDM, March 28, April 24), appears to be continuing. Even though the issue of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs now figures on the bilateral agenda, Russia has been no more forthcoming when it comes to showing any understanding of Japanese security concerns. Tokyo’s security concerns relate to China first, and North Korea second. But although those issues have evidently driven Japan’s push for this rapprochement with Russia (Nbr.org, April 2017), Moscow has continued to refuse to fully address either matter. Instead, Russian diplomacy has concentrated on demanding that Tokyo accept Moscow’s possession of the disputed Kurile Islands as well as Russian territorial gains through aggression in Ukraine. Additionally, Russia has been pushing Japan to provide it with economic support that would, in effect, break the wall of Western sanctions.

Thus, entirely disregarding Japan’s apprehension about China, Russia has pushed ahead with moving ever closer to Beijing. Illustratively, last March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that Sino-Russian relations had reached “a historic maximum” and are stronger than they had ever been. Notably, he added that the bilateral relationship was based on mutual interests, not external factors like a shared antipathy toward the United States (The Moscow Times, March 8). The following month while meeting with Wang in Astana, his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, stated, “I fully share your view that Russia and China bear special responsibility for the maintenance of the stability in international relations and preventing unilateral attempts to use force to settle conflicts and crises” (Mid.ru, April 21). In other words, Lavrov insinuated, it is up to the United States to refrain from undertaking “unilateral” activities that threaten North Korea. And his words entirely glossed over China’s own aggressive behavior in the region, foremost in the South China Sea. All in all, this hardly sounds like a constructive response to Tokyo’s anxieties.

Nor is Moscow prepared to discuss a Russian natural gas pipeline to Japan, allegedly because Gazprom cannot determine with any clarity what the future energy demand in Japan will be (Japan Times, April 10). The more likely reason is that Russia is unwilling to lower its price for this gas despite the downward pressure on energy prices in world markets. On the other hand, Russia has maintained if not increased to a record pace the tempo of its bomber flights into Japanese air space in 2016–2017. These flights force Japan to scramble its jets, and Russia continues to behave in this belligerent manner even as regional tensions rise in the wake of the Korea crisis (TASS, January 25; Bloomberg, April 13).

Finally, with regard to the long-standing issue of the Kurile Islands. Japan, in its unceasing pursuit of reconciliation with Russia, has even prepared a plan for joint economic development of the Islands largely using Japanese money—i.e. essentially a subsidy to Russia. Nevertheless, Russian opinion remains obdurate that the Kurile Islands are a problem “that was unambiguously solved in 1945. That is our territory. Period” (Politicom.ru, March 1). Thus, Russia refuses to meet Japan halfway or even part way with regard to China, Korea, energy or the Kurile Islands. Nonetheless, it demands that Japan unequivocally renounce its claim to the Islands as well as accept Moscow’s political support to Beijing and Pyongyang against Tokyo. At the same time, Moscow refuses to sell Japan gas while expecting the latter to engage in large-scale bilateral trade and direct investment in the Russian economy—even though, given the nature of Russia’s domestic institutions, such large injections of Japanese money will likely be inefficiently utilized if not stolen.

This stalemate should raise two questions for observers, even as these two sets of policies attest to the delusions of both governments. First, what does Japan expect to gain from its continued, unsuccessful pursuit of Russia? After all, the idea that somehow Japan can detach China from Russia and that Russia will somehow be more responsive to Japanese concerns has repeatedly been dashed on the rocks of reality. And yet, Tokyo persists in what must be called a delusion that Russia is prepared to meet its needs.

The second question pertains to Russia: To what degree can Moscow’s Asian policy be considered a success? Russia, too, has achieved little from its relationships with China, Korea and Japan, besides some transitory and ephemeral gains of status stemming from Putin’s visit to Tokyo last year. But in tangible terms, Russo-Japanese trade remains minuscule as Tokyo has not broken ranks with the West on sanctions. Meanwhile, Russia’s dependence on China continues to grow unchecked by a happier relationship with Japan. Clearly Moscow is equally deluded that it can simply stonewall Tokyo into giving it what it wants and that somehow these tactics and policies attest to the success of Russia’s pivot to Asia. To paraphrase the Asian proverb, this bilateral caravan of Japan chasing after an obdurate and dismissive Russia may go on, but it will not be dogs barking to no avail as this happens. Instead, the caravan appears to be heading toward a destination that exists nowhere but in the imagination of its travelers.