Why Are US Allies Japan and South Korea Drawing Closer to Russia?

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Why Are US Allies Japan and South Korea Drawing Closer to Russia?

Rational self-interest and energy security are more important than Western politics for US allies in Northeast Asia.

Why Are US Allies Japan and South Korea Drawing Closer to Russia?
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Service

In September 2017, the Eastern Economic Forum was held in Vladivostok, Russia. During the two-day event, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took some time off and attended a judo tournament together. During the same conference, South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed his admiration of the Russian leader, likened him to a Siberian tiger, and emphasized the importance of economic cooperation between the two countries. Whereas the West’s diplomatic relations with Putin’s Russia have deteriorated in the past few years, South Korea and Japan have sought to keep good relations with Moscow.

The “West” is a vague concept, which oftentimes – and rightly so – is problematized. Used frequently in this text, the West is a collective name for the United States and the European Union, countries which, at least at prima facie, are bound together by shared democratic values, common economic philosophy, and security interests. Institutions and organizations as the EU and NATO are embodiments of these common traits and interests.

It is undeniable, whatever the definition of West might be, that Japan and South Korea see themselves connected to some extent with it. Since he took office, Abe has increased his emphasis on democracy and human rights, very much in line with Western rhetoric. On a financial level, cooperation and integration with the West have been central to both Tokyo and Seoul. This has very much paved the way for Northeast Asia’s economic development. Furthermore, the North Korean nuclear threat has pushed the Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans to close ranks even more on the question of regional security. NATO, a Western institution, has individual partner agreements with both South Korea and Japan.

Thus, at a first glance, it might be difficult to understand why these key U.S. allies in East Asia seek strong ties with a seemingly natural adversary of the West.

When diplomatic relations between Russia and the West deteriorated in 2014 following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the civil war in eastern Ukraine, discourse in Seoul and Tokyo emphasized joint economic cooperation with Russia. In 2015, Russian exports of oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Japan exceeded all previous levels. The fact that Japan and Russia have had a rather complicated relationship following World War II and the ongoing territorial dispute over the Northern Territories (or Southern Kurils) does not seem to be an obstacle for Abe in seeking increased economic cooperation and improved relations with Russia. The Sakhalin gas projects have attracted major investments from several significant Japanese actors such as the Mitsubishi Group. Simultaneously, South Korean leadership seeks to double its current turnover from economic cooperation with Russia by the year 2020. Plans for gas export and joint shipping routes are being crafted in order to deepen the relationship with Moscow.

One argument that could be made is that this is a case of regional balancing; Japan and South Korea feel threatened by China with its growing influence and power, and thus seek to equalize the power balance in the region by cooperating with Russia. Energy is just one aspect of this growing cooperation. A main premise in this reasoning is that the regional geopolitical scene has higher priority compared to the global equivalent. In 2010 China’s GDP surpassed Japan’s, a symbolic shift in economic power in East Asia. At the same time, China is increasing its naval power and influence around the world. South Korea has had numerous confrontations with the Chinese regime following disputed natural resources in the Yellow Sea.

Another claim that could be made is that this outreach to Russia is a way for Japan and South Korea to signal their independence toward Washington. After more than half a century of U.S. military presence in Japan and Korea, there is a streak of anti-Americanism – or at least skepticism toward the United States – throughout the two countries. This was especially manifested in South Korea in the early 2000s, with the election of President Kim Dae-jung. Such anti-Americanism could be manifested once again by the defiance of Washington’s foreign policy preferences for its allies.

However, a major reason for this eagerness to approach Russia from the governments in Tokyo and Seoul is energy. With Japan and South Korea’s large and growing economies, energy is constantly in high demand. Nuclear power is utilized in both countries. South Korea’s nuclear power represents a large proportion of the country’s energy production, but Moon has vowed to decrease, and eventually abolish, the use of nuclear power and instead import more LNG and other sources of energy.  A very small number of Japan’s households also receive their energy from nuclear power. Following the nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011, public support for nuclear power deteriorated and most nuclear power plants were shut down. Despite the accident, Abe turned the tide in the 2013 election victory with some pro-nuclear policies. Nevertheless, other resources beside nuclear power are necessary for Japan.

Unfortunately, South Korea and Japan are starved for other energy resources. There is no access to natural resources of significance, and the countries are forced to import almost all of their energy resources, mainly from the Middle East via the Malacca Strait. Receiving a majority of oil from the Middle East could be likened to putting all one’s eggs in the same basket – and currently, the proverbial basket of the Middle East is crumbling. With the escalated conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, as well as the heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the situation is becoming increasingly volatile. In sum, two of the wealthiest countries in Northeast Asia are unable to provide themselves with sufficient energy, and the region from which a majority of their energy imports do come is in turmoil.

If we take the International Energy Agency (IEA) definition of energy security — “the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price” — into consideration, we arrive at the conclusion that South Korea and Japan suffer from catastrophically poor energy security. Due to this uncertainty and insecurity, the decision-makers in Seoul and Tokyo seek to spread out their risks concerning energy imports. Siberia holds large quantities of both natural gas and oil. Cooperation with Russia over oil and gas resources are ways to make the energy supply to South Korea and Japan more reliable, since such cooperation would divert their almost absolute dependence on Middle Eastern oil to the less insecure region of Siberia.

Russia also benefits from such energy cooperation. The country’s economy has been in a state of free-fall since the West’s economic retribution subsequent to the events in Ukraine in 2014. Several comprehensive sanctions were imposed toward the Russian economy, as well as toward assets belonging to Russian officials. New energy cooperation with the states of Northeast Asia offers a lucrative opportunity for foreign investments. Furthermore, this would mean that Russia can utilize its abundance of natural resources in Siberia. Thus, Moscow has a major incentive to keep on good terms with its neighbors to the east, even if they are primarily Western allies.

In order to understand this contradictory relationship, the concept of “security maximization” should be used. The main objective for Korean and Japanese decision-makers is to make the state they represent as safe as possible. They aim to maximize the country’s security. There are many different types of security; everything from military and geopolitical security to financial security. One generally overlooked type is energy security. To ensure energy supply is essential for a state’s ability to survive. Energy security is a comprehensive issue, which affects every single aspect of other security agendas.

Pragmatism and rational self-interest prevail. Russia is currently the best option for South Korea and Japan when dealing with the substandard energy security of their countries. The U.S. export of oil and LNG to Japan and South Korea is very limited compared to the Russian export. There is nowhere else to turn for Tokyo and Seoul. Future expanded cooperation will make South Korea and Japan even more dependent on Russian resources, and thus, drive the countries closer.

Liberal ideals of democracy and other such “Western values” ring hollow to countries which are faced with issues of such a crude and existential nature. Compared with this energy crisis and the potential gains the cooperation with Russia offers, the geopolitical interests of the West have little, if any, significance for the American allies in Northeast Asia.  

Magnus Lundström is a research associate at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm, Sweden.