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Russia-Japan-China: balances and counterbalances

The Far Eastern powers solve the complex problems of interaction inside the triangle

In recent years, the relationship in the triangle Russia-Japan-China has become an increasingly important factor in the political situation in the Asia-Pacific region, and primarily in East Asia. Three countries are important trade and economic partners for each other, but now in cooperation with Japan, both Russia and China, territorial problems and security issues come to the forefront. These problems have a serious impact on the balance of power between the three leading players in Northeast Asia.

Russia-Japan-China: balances and counterbalances
Photo: shutterstock.com

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
To date, the territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over the belonging of the group of uninhabited islets of Senkaku (in Chinese, Diaoyu) is the most acute in the East China Sea. And in recent years it has acquired an unprecedented intensity. It actually focused on the growing economic and military-political rivalry between the two Asian powers: the old-Japan and the new-rising China. At the moment, along with the nuclear missile potential of North Korea, the so-called Chinese threat is considered the most dangerous challenge to Japan's national security. The thesis about the "Chinese threat" is firmly entrenched not only in the lexicon of Japanese analysts, but also in Japanese official documents.

Tokyo is extremely alarmed by the growing economic and military power of its neighbor, the intensification of its naval activities, as well as its offensive actions against the disputed islands. Therefore, the Abe government is striving in every possible way to enlist the support of various countries in the so-called "containment of China."

Recently, among politicians, in the expert environment, and also in the Japanese media, the topic of involving Russia in the global system of anti-Chinese checks and balances carefully constructed by Tokyo is being increasingly discussed. The paradox of the situation is that Japanese analysts see in the face of Russia, that is, a country with which Japan does not have a formal peace treaty, a companion in the fight against the threat from China - the state with which it has a treaty of peace and friendship.

The basis for the Russian-Japanese rapprochement, according to the Japanese, is the allegedly growing anxiety in Russia about the growing economic and military power of China, the buildup of its military potential, both on land and at sea, as well as plans for the development of the Northern Sea Route. These facts, they believe, are viewed in Russia as a "Chinese threat" in the Far East in the field of both the economy and security, and makes Moscow seek rapprochement with Tokyo to jointly neutralize this "threat." Japanese political scientists believe that Japan, for its part, should take advantage of Moscow's concerns in order to jointly counter China.

True, in parallel, Tokyo has its own concerns about the coordination of actions by Moscow and Beijing in their territorial disputes with Japan. Moreover, the Japanese media unequivocally interpret the Russian-Chinese statement signed during the visit of then President Dmitry Medvedev to Beijing in September 2010 as an instrument of joint pressure from Russia and China on Japan over their territorial conflicts with it. The Japanese interpret this statement as a declaration by China and Russia that they have decided to create a united front in their disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands and the southern Kuril Islands. According to Japanese observers, it was after this statement that China tightened its actions against Japan in connection with the dispute over the Diaoyu and the perception of history. And Medvedev was the first of the leaders of our country in its entire history to visit the southern Kuriles.

Japanese analysts also find confirmation of their assumptions about Moscow's concern about the so-called "Chinese threat" in the creation of a negotiating structure with the participation of the foreign and defense ministers of Russia and Japan (2 + 2). At the April 2013 meeting in Moscow, Putin and Abe agreed on it. The Japanese directly argue that the military strengthening of China and the problem of North Korea's nuclear weapons pose a common threat to both Japan and Russia, and in these conditions, the launch of negotiations in the "2 + 2" format is an important step for both countries. Tokyo hopes to make this format a platform for discussing the "Chinese threat" problem.

It should also be noted that, betting on Moscow's allegedly existing concerns about the "Chinese threat," Japanese experts hope for concessions from it in the territorial dispute with Tokyo over the southern Kuriles as a condition for Russia to rapprochement with Japan on an anti-Chinese basis. It can be assumed that at present, Prime Minister Abe hopes to achieve, if not a breakthrough, then at least some positive progress for Japan, namely in the Russian direction in territorial disputes with its neighbors. A certain hope for this is given by the readiness of Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek a mutually acceptable solution to the territorial problem in relations between Russia and Japan.

Moscow's willingness to engage in a territorial dialogue with Tokyo contrasts sharply with Beijing and Seoul's categorical refusal to discuss their own territorial disputes with Japan. Japan is arguing with South Korea over sovereignty over the Dokdo Islands (in Japanese, Takeshima). Thus, at the expense of Russia, the Japanese leadership would like to ease the heavy burden of territorial disputes with three neighboring countries at once, including South Korea. Japan is very interested in maintaining non-confrontational relations with Russia in view of the predicted further tightening of Beijing's policy towards Tokyo on the territorial issue and the problem of interpreting the history of bilateral relations.

However, in relations with Russia, the Japanese government is currently in a difficult situation. He has to look for a middle ground between the desire to preserve the positive accumulated to date in relations with Russia, on the one hand, and the demonstration of loyalty to his main and only military-political ally - the United States - on the other. The latter is especially important for Tokyo in view of the same notorious “Chinese threat”. Indeed, Japan sees Japan as the guarantor of its security and territorial integrity.

Paradoxical as it may seem, but it is precisely this glance at China that makes Tokyo take a critical position in relation to Russia's actions in the situation around Crimea. In this regard, in his official statements, Prime Minister of Japan Abe has repeatedly condemned Russia. Each time he spoke about the unacceptability of attempts to change the status quo through the threat of the use of force. However, it is clear that such statements have a dual purpose. They are addressed not only to Russia, but also to China regarding its actions around the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. Tokyo fears that if Moscow is not punished for the Crimea, this could induce China, following Russia's example, to take the said islands from Japan by force.

At the same time, judging by everything, there is an understanding in Tokyo that there are certain limits in the toughening of Japan's position with respect to Moscow regarding Crimea. The Japanese capital realizes that the stronger Tokyo supports Washington and Brussels on the situation around Crimea, the more Moscow will move closer to Beijing. And not only economically, but also militarily. And rapprochement between Russia and China on an anti-Japanese basis is what Japan least wants.

Proof of this thesis is the second round of Russian-Japanese talks in the 2 + 2 format, which took place in Tokyo in March this year. At them, the Japanese side again tried to involve Russian participants in the discussion of the "Chinese threat" topic. In particular, the leitmotif of the Japanese side's statements about China was concern about further rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing, primarily in the field of military cooperation. Thus, representatives of Japan expressed concern over the transfer of the latest S-400 missile defense system and other modern weapons by Russia to China.

Japanese experts believe that Russia's sale of modern weapons to China threatens Japan's security. They point out that China will be the first country to buy the state-of-the-art S-400 system. The deal, experts expect, will lead to a change in the balance of power in Asia. Most of all, the Japanese are worried by the fact that the sale by Russia to China of the S-400 missile defense system, in their opinion, could upset the fragile military balance in the East China Sea.

Japanese analysts are also wary of joint naval exercises of the two countries, including in the South China Sea. At the same time, the Japanese believe that the rapprochement of Russia and China in the military sphere is directed against the strengthening Japanese-American military alliance.

However, Russia has its own claims to Japan in connection with both the build-up of its own military potential and the strengthening of Japan's cooperation with the United States in the security sphere. It seems that these claims are largely shared by China. At the already mentioned Russian-Japanese talks in the "2 + 2" format in March this year, Russian representatives expressed serious concern over the plans to deploy elements of the US global missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region.

In Abe's government circles, they say frankly that Tokyo wants to avoid a situation where China and Russia coordinate their actions on territorial and historical issues and increase pressure on Japan. But the government is also concerned that if the unity of Japan and the United States is disrupted by Japan's desire to improve relations with Russia, this could result in an even greater tightening of China's policy towards Japan.

At the same time, it should be pointed out that Japan has very critical assessments of Russian-Chinese relations and the prospects for their development. Here is what, in particular, the mouthpiece of Japanese business circles, the Nikkei newspaper, writes on this occasion: “Putin and Xi Jinping describe the current relations between Russia and China as“ the best in history ”. But it can hardly be disputed that their connections are based on practical benefits and cold calculus. “Strategic partnership” means that they will act together when it suits them, but will go their own way if working together does not bring benefits. Take, for example, China's reaction to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. China remained neutral, staying away from the conflict between Russia and the US-European alliance with which China has strong economic ties. China has effectively made the most of this conflict and secured a favorable price for natural gas from an isolated Russia.

The relationship between China and Russia, the Japanese newspaper continues, is fragile and based on practical benefits, and it remains to be seen whether they survive a serious conflict of interest between them. Their authoritarian political systems are more susceptible to unexpected and radical political changes than democracies in Japan, the United States, and Europe. This makes it less possible for their alliance to thrive in the long term. ”

Japanese experts point to the recent decline in economic relations between Russia and China as evidence of the fragility of the Russian-Chinese partnership. This is manifested in a decrease in the volume of bilateral trade, as well as in the absence of progress in the implementation of a number of large bilateral investment projects. At the same time, the Japanese draw attention to the fact that Chinese banks are reluctant to cooperate with Russia, fearing sanctions from the United States.

In their opinion, Russia is also unhappy with Beijing's ambitious project called the Silk Road Economic Belt, which aims to develop infrastructure in former Soviet Central Asia, which Russia sees as its backyard. China, according to Japanese observers, has pledged to coordinate a project with the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, but is clearly focusing on bilateral deals with Kazakhstan and other members of the bloc.

Along with this, Japanese political scientists emphasize the strategic importance of Russia, both for China and Japan, in the current difficult international realities in the APR. To summarize briefly, this significance, in particular, is as follows. Russia is the key to China's ability to project power across the sea. Because of its long border with China and the presence of significant military power, Moscow, if hostile to Beijing, will force China to reorient its military resources in favor of the ground forces at the expense of the navy and air force.

China's rapid development of its naval and air forces, the Japanese believe, became possible only thanks to Beijing's ability to settle most of the land border disputes in the 1990s and early 2000s. According to Japanese analysts, one of the main reasons why Xi Jinping sought Russia's favor so strongly is the understanding that China's ability to have an advantage in its maritime disputes is directly dependent on its ability to maintain warm relations with Russia.

Japanese politicians understand this too. And they not only understand, but also intend to pursue a certain course in this regard with regard to the Russian-Chinese partnership. This course is frankly outlined in the words of a high-ranking Japanese government official quoted by the largest Japanese newspaper, the Ymiuri Shimbun. He said: "We will strengthen our relationship with Russia and drive a wedge into the relationship between China and Russia."

It is obvious, however, that no matter how relations develop in the Moscow-Beijing-Tokyo triangle, Russia is interested in having countries on its Far Eastern borders with which it could build equally good-neighborly, mutually beneficial relations in the economic, security and other spheres. areas. Its interests, as well as the interests of other states, would also meet the reduction of tension in the APR and the solution of complex problems, including territorial ones, on the basis of a constructive dialogue.

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