Can Japan, Russia Transform Asia?

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

Can Japan, Russia Transform Asia?

Events on the Korean Peninsula offer a window of opportunity for Russia and Japan to rethink ties. But can they emerge from the Sino-U.S. shadow?

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.

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.

The reality is that neither Tokyo nor Moscow dares to challenge its stronger partner for fear of further marginalization. Their options in Northeast Asia are limited to a breakthrough with South Korea and/or a return to negotiations with each other with greater urgency. While neither approach would be sufficient to suggest that either party could be a balancer between Washington and Beijing, they could at least serve as real image changers. 

One vital step toward self-revitalization is for Russia and Japan to secure support in Northeast Asia for a new energy policy. China refuses to commit to the market prices for Russian natural gas that Europeans have been paying; Russia needs other states to pick up the slack as new pipelines are built and energy-driven development in the Russian Far East intensifies.

The triple whammy of the 3/11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster left Japan in need of new sources of energy, preferably natural gas. Already, Sakhalin oil and gas are flowing to Japan in increasing volume, but much more is possible. As Russians have been arguing to the Japanese since 3/11, the two states complement each other. Yet, given the lawless treatment of various investors by Russia, and deep mutual distrust, agreement to commit vast sums of money from Japanese companies and the government won’t be easy to reach. Disagreement over the way to deal with North Korea, and prospects for an energy pipeline connecting Vladivostok to Busan, compounds the energy impasse between Japan and Russia.

Under President Lee Myung-bak, South Korea has taken a positive approach to both Japan and Russia, although neither country did what was necessary to boost ties. In 2010, Russia refused to condemn North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan, while this year, Japan showed little sensitivity to the Dokdo/Takeshima island issue, a symbol of Japan’s lack of contrition over history. As plans to resume the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program are going forward, Russia should do more to win South Korea’s trust, while Japan should recognize that coordination with South Korea is desirable, including through cooperation in a broad energy package involving Russian supply routes to Busan and to Tokyo.

Still, both Japanese and Russian strategic thinkers have questions about the value of bilateral relations. After Medvedev visited one of the four islands claimed by Japan last year, relations sank to a new post-Cold War low, as neither side took the other into account in strengthening relations in the region. The territorial dispute lingers as a source of distrust: Japan suspects that Russia will return to its two-island plan for resolving the dispute, enabling it to claim victory if Japan yields; and Russians doubt that Japan will budge from its “four islands in a batch” insistence, which in 2001 derailed the progress the two had made at the Irkutsk summit. Despite hints that Putin is again prioritizing Japan, there isn’t enough trust to launch preliminary talks on the territorial dispute and to consider a long-term energy deal.

So, what can Japan and Russia do to reinvigorate negotiations and open the door to three-way cooperation with South Korea, supported by the United States? First, Japan must reassess the Irkutsk summit as the foundation for accomplishing three objectives: 1) a deal on the territorial dispute; 2) a more favorable atmosphere for closer geopolitical cooperation on matters such as the Six-Party Talks and on discussions aimed at a multilateral security framework for Northeast Asia; and 3) momentum toward large-scale economic projects, especially involving energy and the development of the Russian Far East.

Russia for its part will need to reevaluate its problematic strategy for the region, including upgrading the urgency of international investment now that Russia has joined the WTO, and balance overreliance on China. After Medvedev’s sense of personal betrayal by Japan’s prime ministers, whose insensitive language kept putting stumbling blocks in the path of resuming negotiations, Putin may elicit a degree of nostalgia.

Ultimately, Putin must present a meaningful strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, while Japan must balance pursuit of the TPP with an Asian strategy. In addition to the energy issues that could draw the two states closer, both sides can point to compelling strategic reasons to seek a turnaround in bilateral relations.

But it will be far from easy – and some challenges may prove insurmountable. First, given Russia’s rising political instability, marked by demonstrations against election fraud and authoritarianism, Putin has to reassure people inside and outside Russia that he will have the legitimacy to be a reliable partner if reelected. Second, if Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and right wing ideologues stand in the way even of exploratory talks, the challenge for Noda, in the midst of domestic political battles to raise the consumption tax from 5 percent to 10 percent and to reach consensus on joining the TPP, is to explain why talks with Russia matter.

On the Russian side, Putin must appreciate that Noda needs more than window-dressing on the way the two big disputed islands are handled, and on the protections for massive new investments by Japanese firms. The new strategy for the Russian Far East and Asia-Pacific region will be scrutinized more closely than any regional initiative since Gorbachev’s Vladivostok and Krasnoyarsk speeches to see if change is meaningful. The diplomatic maneuvering on both sides will be influenced by the way North Korea is handled in or out of the Six-Party Talks, which is where South Korea comes into the picture.

If the United States defers to Lee Myung-bak to decide if the talks are to be resumed, then Putin and Noda should coordinate more closely with Lee and each other on the Six-Party Talks. The other external challenge is how Obama’s “pivot” to Asia will respond to uncertainty in the world economy, including energy prices, and China’s political transition in 2012. If Putin reaffirms the “reset” with the United States, this will make it easier for a revival of U.S. policies in the 1990s that had welcomed improved Russo-Japanese relations. 

As this year draws to a close, the odds against a breakthrough in Japanese-Russian relations are high. After years of “bashing,” the Japanese Foreign Ministry appears incapable of challenging critics of any compromise with Russia. Meanwhile, there’s no reason to think that Noda will focus on the emotional issue of Russia, which could undermine his other objectives.

Similarly, Putin appears determined to run against the West, underscored by his response to U.S. missile defense plans and his comments over U.S. “interference” in Russian election campaigns. In addition, and in his “lame duck” year, Lee Myung-bak isn’t well positioned to pursue multilateral diplomacy beneficial to Japanese-Russian relations, especially given the hardening of South Korean opinion against Japan over historical themes.

Will the challenges posed by North Korea break this impasse? Perhaps. But what seems more likely is that events on the Korean Peninsula will lead to deeper Sino-U.S. polarization that will draw Russia further into China’s shadow, and leave Japan no option but to draw closer to the United States.

Gilbert Rozman is Musgrave Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. His recent books include: 'Chinese Strategic Thought toward Asia, U.S. Leadership,' 'History and Bilateral Relations in Northeast Asia,' and 'East Asian National Identities: Commonalities and Differences.'