The New Year brought new challenges and opportunities to Russian policy in East Asia. On January 3, 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe signaled Japan’s continuing interest in a summit with Russia to normalize bilateral relations (TASS, January 4), even though both sides had given up on this quest only weeks before, not least because Moscow made clear it would make no concessions on the Russian-occupied Kurile Islands (Japanese Northern Territories) (see EDM, November 20, 2015). Five days after the Japanese prime minister’s declaration, the deputy head of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Masahiko Komura, announced he is coming to Moscow to push the dialogue with Russia, suggesting that Abe wants to sidestep his foreign ministry, which has been notably anti-Russian for years (Sputnik News, January 9).
But on January 6, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK—the official name of North Korea) exploded what it said was a hydrogen bomb, a claim doubted by many experts given the radiological and seismic evidence. Nonetheless, for Moscow, these twin regional challenges—the North Korean nuclear program and the conflict resolution process with Tokyo—will now come together because Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said he would discuss the latter issue with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Sputnik News, January 9). Notably, there was more commentary about the North Korean bomb in the Russian press than about the Japanese initiative. Presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov said that Russia was “extremely concerned about information that the DPRK has a hydrogen bomb” (Interfax, January 6). Moscow’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Grigory Berdennikov, called the North Korean test, a “clear violation of international law” (RIA Novosti, January 6).
While Moscow has long claimed that it opposes North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, to date it has done little or nothing tangible to stop that nuclearization from occurring. In fact, a perusal of the Russian analytical and foreign policy literature on Korea over the last several years reveals a continuing insistence that the Korean crisis is Washington’s fault for threatening the DPRK. According to Russian experts, before Pyongyang can renounce nuclearization, Washington must give the North Korean regime sound security guarantees. Moreover, Russia’s stance on the DPRK is clouded by its countervailing interests to somehow become a major economic and energy partner of North Korea (see EDM, May 7, 2014; May 14, 2015) so that Moscow will be taken more seriously in the six-party talks on Korean nuclearization and in East Asia more generally. Thus Russia’s negative reactions to the latest North Korean nuclear test appear less than fully genuine. And it would be quixotic to expect any serious effort from Moscow toward achieving the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
As regards Japan, there is no reason to expect that bilateral consultations on North Korea will lead anywhere serious. Certainly, based on previous experience, Russia is unlikely to do anything to mitigate Japanese security anxieties—as underscored by, for example, Moscow’s past indifference to the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea (Hiroshi Kimura, “Putin’s Policy Toward the Korean Peninsula: Why Is Russia Losing Its Influence?” Russia’s Shift Toward Asia, 2006, p. 164).
However the Japanese quest for an agreement with Russia, despite innumerable continuing Russian insults and slights to Japan, might be a more serious affair. A November 2015 conference hosted by the Brookings Institute in Washington revealed that many Japanese foreign policy thinkers actually believe they can recover two of the disputed Kurile Islands plus some unspecified “alpha” in return for economic concessions to Moscow—most likely an end to Japanese sanctions on Russia. In turn, this deal would allow Russia to become more independent of China, thus weakening the nightmare possibility for Tokyo of a Sino-Russian alliance in Northeast Asia, and enable Japan to play a role as a mediator or broker of East-West relations (see EDM, November 20, 2015). Clearly, such a policy would fly in the face of Japan’s alliance with the United States, which is the bedrock on which all Japanese policy has stood for generations. Furthermore, it would represent a major breach in the overall Western policy of sanctioning, if not isolating, Russia.
In addition, it is quite unlikely that Japan would actually receive any of the promised benefits from such a deal with Russia. Apart from the unlikelihood of Russian concessions to Japan on the Kurile Islands, which themselves have little strategic value for Tokyo, it is doubtful that Moscow can or will actually improve economic conditions at home—the major barrier to Japanese investment and trade for years. Even more importantly, there are mounting signs that the “comprehensive strategic partnership with China” that is now a cornerstone of Russia’s overall foreign policy is becoming a relationship that is a genuine alliance in all but name. Moscow’s political and economic dependence upon China is growing and there are multiplying signs that Russia wants a true alliance. Indeed, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu openly called for one in November 2014 (Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, Interfax, November 18, 2014; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 18, 20, 2014). Similarly, many Western experts believe that this kind of relationship is now coming into being (Theasianforum.com, November–December 2015; Artyom Lukin and Rensselear Lee, Russia’s Far East: New Dynamics in Asia and Beyond, Boulder: Colorado, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2015).
Under these conditions, it is quite unlikely that Beijing will simply stand by while Moscow accedes to Tokyo’s fantasies about dislodging Russia’s grip over the Kuriles. At the same time, Russia will probably not endanger its ties to China in return for concessions from a country that the Russian leadership increasingly disdains and disrespects. Regardless, it is now clear that Moscow and its Asian partners face a year of multiple challenges whose outcomes cannot be predicted but that will undoubtedly have profound repercussions for world politics.