Can Japan, Russia Transform Asia?


The shadow of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death hangs over Northeast Asia as leaders work to reassure each other of cooperation to ensure stability in the uncertain transition ahead. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak spoke by telephone with Japan’s Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, whom just a day or two earlier he had been berating for failure to act on the “comfort women” issue. Lee also spoke with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose failure to criticize the North’s 2010 sinking of the Cheonan had left a bad aftertaste in South Korea. But these efforts at developing a coherent strategy were taking place against the backdrop of a China and United States that are still developing their own responses – responses that could lead to further polarization in the region.

And it’s this last reality that could cause increasing frustration among other states that also consider themselves great powers – Japan and Russia. Polarization has advanced relentlessly since the end of the Cold War, and in place of Japan’s cherished dream of “returning to Asia” as its leader, Tokyo now looks in the 2010s to have little choice but to become more deeply enmeshed in the U.S. alliance system.  Russia’s dashed expectations are even more strongly felt; Boris Yeltsin’s Atlanticism and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s newly declared “Eurasian Community” have proven to have little substance in the face of increasingly one-sided Russian dependence on China’s divisiveness.

Back in 2002, at the start of the second North Korean nuclear crisis, Japan and Russia strove for an independent approach to the North, as seen in Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s September visit to Pyongyang and Putin’s third meeting in three years with Kim Jong-il, followed by efforts to broker a deal in January 2003 to resolve the crisis. Yet both were marginalized. Today, Russia’s preoccupation with building a pipeline through the peninsula, and Japan’s obsession with uncovering the truth about abductions of its citizens, reveal how each state feigns relevance while sticking closely to China or the United States. In the next stage of maneuvering over North Korea, neither Moscow nor Tokyo can expect to have a strong hand unless Pyongyang abruptly abandons confrontation.

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But things are set to become even more polarized in 2012. Noda has made joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) his foreign policy priority, even if critics regard this as tantamount to Japan entering the U.S. economic orbit with long-dreaded implications for Japan’s national identity. If some resistors warn of an imbalance as prospects for an East Asian community, championed in late 2009 by the Democratic Party of Japan when it took power, are sacrificed, others fear that a deepening divide between maritime and continental Asia will not only result in a new Cold War, but will undermine Japan’s unique civilization, the crux of its national identity. 

The situation is also perilous for defenders of an autonomous foreign policy and national identity in Russia. Reasserting leadership even before his anticipated election as president, Putin promises not only to be able to produce a “Eurasian Community,” but also to set forth an “Asia-Pacific” regional strategy in time for the Vladivostok APEC meeting in September 2012. Kazakhstan’s decision to join this vaguely defined community offers little solace as China’s influence keeps growing in Central Asia as it uses the cover of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization to expand its economic clout. Moreover, despite Medvedev’s August meeting with Kim Jong-il, Russia’s position on North Korea and the Six-Party Talks mainly echoes China’s. There’s growing concern in Russia that it has a China policy, but not a regional policy.

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