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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 concerned about the growing economic and military might of its neighbor, the intensification of its naval activities, as well as its offensive actions against disputed islands. Therefore, the Abe government seeks 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 reason for the Russian-Japanese rapprochement, according to the Japanese, is the allegedly growing alarm in Russia over China's growing economic and military might, building up its military capabilities both on land and at sea, and plans to develop the Northern Sea Route. These facts, they say, are seen in Russia as a "Chinese threat" in the Far East in the sphere of both economy and security, and forcing Moscow to seek rapprochement with Tokyo to jointly neutralize this "threat". Japanese political scientists believe that, for its part, Japan should take advantage of such a concern of Moscow in order to jointly counter China.

True, parallel to Tokyo, there are own concerns about the coordination of 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 of 2010 as an instrument of joint pressure by Russia and China on Japan over their territorial conflicts with it. The Japanese interpret this statement as a declaration of China and Russia that they 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 Diaoyu Islands and the perception of history. And Medvedev was the first of the leaders of our country in its history to visit the southern Kurils.

Japanese analysts find confirmation of their assumptions about Moscow’s concern about the so-called “Chinese threat” in the fact of creating a negotiating structure with the participation of the foreign and defense ministers of Russia and Japan (2 + 2). Putin and Abe agreed on it at the April 2013 meeting in Moscow. The Japanese say bluntly that China’s military reinforcement and the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons pose a common threat to both Japan and Russia, and in these conditions, launching negotiations in the 2 + 2 format is an important step for both countries. Tokyo hopes to make this format a platform for discussing the problem of the “Chinese threat.”

It should also be noted that, relying on Moscow’s supposedly existing concern about the “Chinese threat,” Japanese experts hope for concessions from it in a territorial dispute with Tokyo regarding the southern Kuriles as a condition for Russia's rapprochement 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 movements for Japan, precisely on the Russian direction in territorial disputes with neighbors. A certain hope to him of this is 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 readiness for dialogue on the territorial issue with Tokyo contrasts sharply with the categorical refusal of Beijing and Seoul to discuss their own territorial disputes with Japan. With South Korea, Japan is arguing over sovereignty over the Dokdo Islands (in Japanese, Takeshima). Thus, at the expense of Russia, the Japanese leadership would like to alleviate the heavy burden of territorial disputes with three neighboring countries, 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, looking at China largely compels Tokyo to take a critical position regarding Russia's actions in the situation around the Crimea. In this regard, in his official statements, the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe, has repeatedly condemned Russia. Each time he spoke of the unacceptability of attempts to change the status quo through the threat of the use of force. However, it is obvious that such statements have a dual purpose. They are addressed not only to Russia, but also to China about its actions around the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. Tokyo fears that if Moscow is not punished for the Crimea, then this may prompt China to take the islands off from Japan by the example of Russia.

At the same time, it seems that Tokyo has an understanding that there are certain limits to Japan's toughening of Moscow's attitude towards the Crimea. In the Japanese capital, they are aware that the more Tokyo will support Washington and Brussels over the situation around the Crimea, the more Moscow will draw closer to Beijing. And not only economically, but also militarily. And the rapprochement of Russia and China on an anti-Japanese basis is what Japan wants least.

The second round of Russian-Japanese talks in the format "2 + 2", which was held in Tokyo this March, proves this thesis. On them, the Japanese side once again tried to attract Russian participants to discuss the topic of the "Chinese threat". In particular, the leitmotif of the Japanese side's statements to China was concern about the further rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing, primarily in the field of military cooperation. Thus, the representatives of Japan expressed concern about the transfer of Russia to China by the newest missile defense system "S-400" and other modern weapons.

Japanese experts believe that Russia’s sale of modern weapons to China threatens Japan’s security. They draw attention to the fact that China will be the first country purchasing the most advanced C-400 system. The deal, experts expect, will lead to a change in the balance of power in Asia. Most of all, the Japanese are concerned about the fact that the sale of the C-400 missile defense system to Russia, 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 building up its own military potential and strengthening Japan’s security cooperation with the United States. It seems that these claims are largely shared by China. At the already mentioned Russian-Japanese talks in the 2 + 2 format in March of this year, Russian representatives expressed serious concern about plans to deploy elements of the US global missile defense in the APR.

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

At the same time, it is necessary to point out that in Japan there are very critical assessments of Russian-Chinese relations and the prospects for their development. Here, in particular, the Japanese business community’s mouthpiece, the Nikkei, writes in this connection: “Putin and Xi Jinping characterize the current relations between Russia and China as“ the best in history. ” But one can hardly dispute that their connections are based on practical benefits and cold calculations. “Strategic partnership” means that they will act together when it suits them, but they will go their own way if working together does not bring benefits. Take, for example, China’s reaction to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. China remained neutral, remaining aloof from the conflict between Russia and the US-European alliance, with which China has strong economic ties. China actually got the most out of this conflict and achieved a profitable price for natural gas from isolated Russia.

The relationship between China and Russia, the Japanese paper continues, is fragile and based on practical benefits, and it’s still necessary to see if they will survive a serious conflict of interest between them. Their authoritarian political systems are more susceptible to unexpected and fundamental changes in politics than democratic systems in Japan, the United States and Europe. This makes it less likely that their alliance will flourish in the long run. ”

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

In their opinion, Russia is also unhappy with the ambitious project of Beijing called the Economic belt of the Silk Road, whose goal is to develop infrastructure in the former Soviet Central Asia, which Russia views as its backyard. China, according to Japanese observers, promised to coordinate the project with the Eurasian Economic Union, which is dominated by Russia, but clearly emphasizes bilateral deals with Kazakhstan and other members of the bloc.

Along with this, Japanese political analysts emphasize the strategic importance of Russia, both for China and Japan, in the current complex 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 in the sea. Because of the long border with China and the presence of significant military power, Moscow, if it is 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 forces.

China's rapid development of its naval and air forces, according to the Japanese, was made possible only thanks to Beijing's ability to settle most of the controversy over the land border in the 1990 and the beginning of the 2000. According to Japanese analysts, one of the main reasons why Xi Jinping sought Russia's location so strongly is the understanding that China's ability to have an advantage in its maritime disputes directly depends on its ability to maintain a warm relationship with Russia.

This is understood by Japanese politicians. And not only understand, but also intend to conduct in this regard a certain course in relation to the Russian-Chinese partnership. This course is openly stated by the words of a high-ranking representative of the Japanese government, quoted by the largest Japanese newspaper Ymiuri Shimbun. He said: "We will strengthen relations with Russia and drive the wedge into relations between China and Russia."

Obviously, however, no matter how developed the relations in the Moskva-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 sphere of economy, security and other 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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