It’s no secret that as Japan and China’s dispute in the East China Sea has intensified, so too has their struggle for influence all over the globe. Besides the global PR battle being waged over the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, Japan and China have increasingly vied for influence in regions as diverse as Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.
Their battle for Russia’s allegiance, while often overlooked, has been no less intense. And for good reason: Russia is the most important state whose allegiance is still truly up for grabs.
Much has been written about the rapid improvement in Sino-Russian ties under Xi Jinping. Considerably less attention has been paid to the potentially just as transformative improvement in Russo-Japanese ties under Shinzo Abe. Much like his Chinese counterpart, since becoming prime minister again Abe has met with Vladimir Putin more times than any other head of state. This included Abe’s historic visit to Russia in April 2013, which was the first time a sitting Japanese prime minister had visited Russia in a decade.
The high level summit meetings between Abe and Putin have led both leaders to authorize their subordinates to negotiate a compromise to end their long-standing territorial dispute over the Northern Islands (Kuril Islands in Russia). In addition, following Abe’s trip to Moscow, the two sides created a two-plus-two dialogue (involving their defense and foreign ministers), which first met in Tokyo to discuss security issues in November of last year. This is no trivial matter: Japan only maintains two-plus-two dialogues with two other nations — Australia and the United States — and Japan is Russia’s only two-plus-two dialogue partner in Asia. Moreover, Russia has welcomed a greater Japanese presence in the Arctic even as it has quietly tried to keep China out of the same waters.
To a large extent, Abe’s efforts to woo Russia — much like his courtship of ASEAN nations — are driven by Japan’s deteriorating position relative to China. This reality was once again underscored by the interview Abe gave to the Wall Street Journal on Friday, which focused heavily on Abe’s desire to continue improving relations with Russia despite Moscow’s annexation of Crimea (which greatly spooked Japan). During the interview, Abe confirmed that he still wanted Putin to visit Japan this fall, and implied that he believed Tokyo could help facilitate Russia’s reentry into the G8 in the near future. The fact that the interview came just days after Russia and China signed a massive natural gas deal left little doubt as to how Russia factors into Abe’s regional calculations.
The amount of attention both Abe and Xi have devoted to improving ties with Russia is a reflection of Moscow’s potential importance to the balance of power in Asia, as well as to the fact that it is not firmly in one camp. Russia’s importance to Asia is multi-faceted. Both China and Japan, for instance, covet Russia for its energy and as a source of profitable investment. It’s also a fairly significant military power.
But in the context of the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Russia’s greatest importance is geostrategic. Namely, Russia is key to China’s ability to project power outwardly toward the sea. Because Russia shares a significant border with China, and because it is a sizeable military power, a Moscow that is hostile toward Beijing would force China to devote more of its military resources to ground forces at the expense of the navy and air force.
Indeed, China’s rapid development of its naval and air capabilities was only made possible by Beijing’s ability to settle the bulk of its land border disputes in the 1990s and early 2000s. A major reason why Xi has courted Russia so intensely is the knowledge that China’s ability to prevail in its maritime disputes is directly related to its ability to maintain cordial ties with Russia. As one of the major targets of China’s maritime expansion, Japan sees winning Russia’s allegiance as a way to reign in Beijing’s naval and air buildup.
Of course, Russia is ultimately doomed and can hardly be considered the most important third party in the Sino-Japanese dispute. Many other nations are crucial to determining the Sino-Japanese balance of power in the East China Sea. Most of these other important nations, however, are already firmly entrenched on one side of the dispute.
For example, while China has done its best to drive a wedge between Japan and the United States, Beijing ultimately understands that it can never woo the U.S. from Japan’s side. Similarly, Shinzo Abe has mounted a charm offensive towards India but even without doing so, Delhi is never going to side with China given their historical enmity and ongoing border dispute. And while maritime ASEAN nations like Vietnam can never be completely independent of China given their proximity and economic dependence on China, their own territorial disputes with China means that strategically they will never side with Beijing. Ditto on Taiwan.
Russia, on the other hand, remains up for grabs in a sense. To be sure, Russia’s long-term strategic interests lie with Japan, if only because Tokyo isn’t able to threaten Russian security or core interests in the same manner that a rising China inevitably will. Still, a number of other important factors can be used by China to woo Russia away from Japan.
The first is Beijing’s economic pull. While Japan hopes to purchase large quantities of Russian natural gas and oil, the sheer size of the Chinese economy makes it impossible for Japan to equal China’s buying power, especially as China becomes richer and Tokyo’s population decline accelerates. And in terms of potential sources of investment, Hong Kong’s outward foreign direct investment alone already surpasses Japan.
The second is history. Although in modern times Russia has quarreled with both China and Japan, the latter remains most prominent in Russia’s collective memory. This is almost certainly due to the fact that Imperial Japan was stronger than czarist Russia and the early Soviet Union, whereas Maoist China was always greatly inferior to the Soviet Union. Moreover, Russia-Japan tensions lasted far longer than Sino-Russian tensions. This includes not only the first 45 years of the 20th century, but also during the second half of the century when Japan was strongly aligned with the Soviet Union’s foremost rival, the United States.
Japan’s alliance with the U.S. also puts it at a comparative disadvantage with China in their struggle for Russia’s allegiance. This has been on full display in recent months as the Ukraine crisis has deepened. Given its dispute with China, Japan needs to stay in America’s good graces. This forced Tokyo to impose at least symbolic sanctions against Russia when the rest of the G7 did. Moreover, the huge U.S. military presence in Japan made it a target for Russian provocations as the crisis deepened. By contrast, tensions with the U.S. over events in Europe has made China even more indispensable for Russia, at least in the short term.
Thus, while Russia’s strategic interests in Asia ultimately lie closer to Japan than China, there are a number of obstacles that will slow and ultimately could prevent a Russo-Japanese alignment. In any case, the ideal option for Russia is to avoid aligning with either side and instead pursue a triangular policy that keeps both countries tripping over themselves to win Russia’s allegiance. So far, Putin has been pulling this off with uncharacteristic grace.