Russia Is Now In a Hurry to Restore Its Influence Before China Becomes a Super Power

15 March 2011, 13:51

Mr. Takahashi, Japan's territorial dispute with Russia has prevented the two nations from concluding a post-World War II peace treaty.

Russian government having assumed an increasingly aggressive posture regarding the country's territorial dispute with Japan in recent months, the question naturally arises, Why?

– The biggest reason is that Russia now has a long-term national strategy mentioned in the new Russian Military Doctrine, which was approved in February 2010.  By 2025, China is expected to become the world’s largest economy surpassing the US. If that situation becomes true, China will occupy the West Pacific and the US will occupy the East Pacific as a natural step of power balance. Russia needs to have some strong footing in the East Asia, going into the West Pacific. This is why Russia is now aggressive regarding the issue of those disputed islands.

 The victorious Soviet Union acquired the islands as well as the southern half of Sakhalin Island (the northern half was already Soviet territory before the Second World War) as justly deserved spoils of war?

We Japanese don’t think so. But the tricky thing is that at the February 1945 Yalta Conference involving Stalin, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the US and Britain are said to have acceded to the Soviet plan to invade and occupy these Japanese lands as a reward for Soviet participation in the war. So it’s hard for Tokyo to criticize such secret agreement made in Yalta, which involved the US, Japan’s current biggest ally. If Japan criticizes Russia now, it means Japan also criticizes then US foreign policy.

Moscow and Tokyo agreed in their joint declaration of 1956, which restored their diplomatic relations, that the Soviet Union would return the disputed islands to Japan upon conclusion of a bilateral peace treaty. Whether it is possible in general to agree with Russia?

– Yes, Russia agreed the return of two smaller islands in that declaration of 1956 and has kept saying so. But Japan will not accept the return of just two smaller islands.

–  Ironically, the Russian leaders’ visits to the disputed islands demonstrate Moscow’s commitment to develop the long-neglected economy of the Russian Far East, including the southern Kurils…

Yes. As I said above, this is Russia’s long-term strategy. The Southern Kuril Islands are very significant militarily.

But theescalation of a long-running territorial dispute between  Japan and Russia is sending relations between the neighbours to their lowest point in decades and may lead to new areas of tension in northeast Asia.

The dispute relates to four islands that Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia the Southern Kurils. The Soviet Union annexed Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the uninhabited Habomai islets after the Second World War, fomenting a dispute that has prevented the two nations from concluding a post-war peace treaty.

The Pacific Fleet is tasked with protecting the Southern Kurils.

The islands' rich mineral and fishing reserves and strategic position make them a valuable prize. The straits between them do not freeze during winter, allowing Russia's Pacific Fleet to access to the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsk.

Similar, that Medvedev is combining the political advantages of playing a nationalistic card ahead of 2012 elections with an awareness that Japan's new defence policy focuses on meeting Chinese territorial ambitions in the East China Sea.

Upcoming elections – in 2011 for parliament and in 2012 for the presidency – make it especially difficult for Russian politicians to make major concessions to Japan. Medvedev's political team is concerned that he lacks the hard-line credentials that make Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his coterie so popular. But with the president unwilling to sacrifice improving ties with the United States and NATO or Russia's important relationship with China at the nationalist altar, confronting Japan over the Kurils represents the safest alternative?

– Yes, Russia has China in East Asia now. China is Russia’s third-largest trading partner. Japan is Russia’s 11th trading partner. For Russia, Japan’s attractiveness especially in terms of economic ties is declining.

Russian policymakers are also annoyed that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which is in power for the first time in its history, has not changed Tokyo's policy toward the islands, despite expectations that it would make more concessions than previous Japanese governments?

– The DPJ government is still fresh and politically venerable and weak. It cannot make any concession especially before April 2011 local elections, including Tokyo gubernatorial election. This is the same situation as Russian politicians who will have the state Duma (lower house) elections at the end of this year, to be followed by a presidential election in the spring of 2012.

The Japanese government's strained ties with other key countries may also explain Moscow's harder line? Russian officials have calculated that the Japanese government cannot respond strongly to Moscow's moves given its current strained relations with China and North Korea, and lingering tensions with South Korea?

– No. Japan and South Korea’s relations are becoming much better, as they started talks on military cooperation already. China and Russia are strengthening their ties against the US, Japan and South Korea. This is the most recent security situation in East Asia.

– The Russia-Japan territorial dispute escalated shortly after the Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Senkaku Islands – referred to as the Diaoyu Islands in China – became more acute?

– Yes, Russia is aiming to take advantage of Japan-China conflicts. One of the motivating factors for Moscow could be Japan's new defense policy for the next decade, adopted by the government last December. Tokyo plans to reduce Cold War-era equipment and organizations, especially the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) personnel in Hokkaido prefecture, the northernmost part of Japan facing Russia. Under its new policy, Japan plans to boost security around the Nansei Islands in Okinawa prefecture in the country's south, and in the East China Sea near China and Taiwan, a move that is apparently aimed at countering China's growing naval power.

Another likely explanation for Moscow's growing assertiveness regarding the islands is that Russia is succeeding in raising its profile in East Asia more generally, even without resolving its dispute with Japan?

– Compared with China, I do not think Russia is succeeding in doing so. Rather it’s losing influence in East Asian affairs such as North Korea’s nuclear issues. So Russia is now in a hurry to restore its influence before China becomes a super power in this region.

– Mr. Takahashi, Russia has little incentive to change its approach to the island dispute, and many reasons to maintain its tougher stance?

– At least until after 2012 elections in Russia, there will be no progress. And if Russian economy becomes bad in coming years, for example, led by a sharp fall in oil and gas prices, then it might rely on Japan’s money and technology by giving Tokyo some concession regarding those islands. Otherwise it would be really hard for both nations to solve this issue.

Political scientistKosuke Takahashi, a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun and Bloomberg News, is a Tokyo-based expert, who writes in both English and Japanese. He visited the Northern Territories, the disputed lands between Russia and Japan, in June 1998 as representative of the Asahi Shimbun and reported on the situations there. He currently works for Asia Times Online and Jane's Defence Weekly as Tokyo correspondent and Nikkei CNBC (news television channel broadcast in Japan)as TV commentator. He graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and the School of International and Public Affairs as a dual master's degree student.

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