By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - Spooked by China's persistent assertiveness in confronting its Asian neighbors at sea, Japan and Russia are beginning to seek rapprochement to promote cooperation on security and economics in East Asia.
Despite little progress on a decades-old territorial dispute, the two nations aim to achieve closer military cooperation to counter China's naval expansion. They are also accelerating bilateral moves to strengthen ties based on economic and energy pragmatism.
There is no shortage of anecdotes and events about this warming of bilateral relations between Japan and Russia. Most recently, General Shigeru Isawaki, head of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF), visited his Russian counterpart Nikolai Makarov in Moscow on June 27. The two nations' top military officials shared the view that bilateral defense cooperation was good for stability in the Asia-Pacific region and agreed to continue cooperation in providing safe navigation.
The following day, the Japanese military delegation led by Iwasaki visited a motorized infantry brigade and a military pilot-training center near Moscow. His trip to Russia is the first in four years for a chief of the JSDF Joint Staff.
"The territorial dispute will go nowhere for the time being," Akihiro Iwashita, a professor of the Slavic Research Center at Hokkaido University in Japan, told Asia Times Online. "While shelving the territorial dispute, the two nations will likely enhance cooperation pragmatically."
The four Russian-occupied islands
Russo-Japanese relations deteriorated to the lowest point in decades after Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia's president, visited Kunashiri Island, one of the four disputed islands, in November 2010, triggering fierce protests from Tokyo. He became the first Russian president to dare to do so. At that time, many Japanese saw populist Medvedev as taking advantage of the Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Senkaku Islands, also referred to as the Diaoyu Islands in China. He appeared to have preyed on the weakness of Japan's diplomatic muscle.
The nagging territorial dispute has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a postwar peace treaty. The area at issue, called the Southern Kurils by the Russians and the Northern Territories by the Japanese, consist of three islands - Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan - and the uninhabited Habomai group of islets. The Soviet Union seized the islands a few weeks after Japan's surrender in World War II on August 15, 1945. The islands are believed to be rich in natural resources, such as oil and gas, and the area is a major fishing ground.
Based on a 1956 Joint Declaration that restored ties between two nations, Russia has offered to return the two smaller territories, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets, only after the signing of a peace treaty with Japan. But Tokyo has rejected this offer and has sought the return of all four territories. Moscow has never agreed to the return of more than Shikotan and Habomai, while Tokyo has never officially agreed to the return of anything less than the entire territory.
The recent thaw
The triple disaster of a devastating mega-earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in March 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, caused a major turning point for the two nations' strained relationship. Russia made an emergency shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to energy-hungry Japan, easing the tensions.
A more positive move toward thawing the ice between the two nations came shortly before the Russian presidential election this March. During an interview with foreign media on March 1, then-prime minister Vladimir Putin expressed his intention to start afresh the negotiations with Tokyo over the long-running island feud. He specifically mentioned the 1956 Joint Declaration, expressing his willingness to resolve the thorny issue by returning the Shikotan and Habomai.
"If I become president, we will have the Russian Foreign Ministry sit on one side and the Japanese Foreign Ministry sit on the other and we will give out the order, 'Hajime'," said Putin, a fifth-degree black belt in judo, using the Japanese term for "begin" employed by referees to start and resume judo matches.
Asked about how to resolve the dispute, Putin referred to the "50-50 split solution" used in settling a 40-year territorial dispute with China and said a similar approach could be taken with Tokyo.
"That would be like a hikiwake," he said, using another Japanese judo term meaning "draw".
Judo diplomacy has continued to stir Japan-Russia relations. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, another judo lover who also has a second-degree black belt, has acted in concert with Putin. During his first meeting with the Russian leader, which took place in Mexico on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit on May 18, Noda told him he wanted to make their meeting the hajime, or beginning, to move toward negotiations at ministerial and working levels over the territorial row.
The two leaders seem to have succeeded in establishing a rapport by discussing judo. They pledged to exchange the national judo uniforms that the two countries' teams will wear at the London Olympics this summer. Noda also offered to present Putin with a portrait of Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan judo, whom the Russian president admires.
Putin has expressed a strong intention to have bilateral economic cooperation take precedence over the territorial problem. This is the basic approach Moscow has taken since the Soviet era, of seeking results in the form of economic assistance from Japan, while at the same time avoiding making concessions to Tokyo in the territorial dispute.
Japan, meanwhile, has abandoned its traditional policy of inseparably linking political and economic issues. Since the territorial problem is extremely difficult to solve, Tokyo now sticks to its pragmatic approach to economic and international cooperation with Moscow to build a firmer bilateral relationship.
The trade volume between the two nations increased to more than US$30 billion last year, hitting a new record.
Most recently, the two nations on June 24 agreed that both governments would provide necessary support for a private-sector project to build a LNG plant in Vladivostok in Russia's far east.
Demand for LNG has jumped since the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima last year, forcing Japan to rely more on thermal power generation. With annual purchases of 80 million tonnes, Japan is the world's largest importer of LNG.
For Russian, fast-growing Asia is a huge, potentially lucrative market. With the LNG terminal set to serve as a base to expand its energy exports in Asia, it aims to strengthen and expand its operations to compete with the giant European and US energy companies that have accelerated their entry to the Asian market. Also, with European economies slumping further, Russia has been boosting its economic links with Asia lately.
The US may be concerned about a possible thaw in relations between Japan and Russia militarily and economically, amid a sensitive period when US-Russia relations have been strained over Iran's nuclear programs, Russian-Syrian military cooperation, and other issues.
China's growing naval power
The former Medvedev administration took an increasingly aggressive approach to Russia's territorial dispute with Japan. Reportedly, now premier Medvedev is planning to visit Etorofu Island, the largest of the disputed islands, on July 4. He arrived on Monday in Vladivostok, where the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit will for the first time be held in Russia on September 8-9.
Japanese experts believe this is because Medvedev personally aims to re-establish his weakening political foundation after retiring from the presidency. By showing nationalistic strong images to the Russian public, he and his aides may attempt to buoy his popularity.
Medvedev may also want to prey on political confusion in Japan, whose politicians are currently indulging in infighting over Prime Minister Noda's plans to double the national sales tax.
From a Japanese perspective, in such an unstable political situation, the negotiations over the territorial dispute don't seem to be getting anywhere.
In a broader picture, Medvedev's upcoming second visit to one of the disputed islands may result from Russia's 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 comes true, China will occupy the West Pacific and the US will occupy the East Pacific as a natural step of power balance. Thus Russia needs to have a strong footing in the East Asia, extending into the West Pacific. Russia is now aggressively making Kunashiri and Etorofu islands into militant strongholds. It is in a hurry to restore its influence before China becomes a superpower in this region. It plans to deploy French-made Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to those islands.
In December 2010, Moscow established one of the four new military districts (MDs) and unified strategic commands (USCs) in Khabarovsk. It didn't place the headquarters of the Eastern MD (USC East) in Vladivostok, home port of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Military experts believe this is because Khabarovsk is in the inland areas close to China.
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. Besides Asia Times Online, he also writes for Jane's Defence Weekly as Tokyo correspondent.