During a parliamentary debate on January 22nd, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that 2019 had seen Russian-Japanese cooperative relations reach an “unprecedented” depth. He alluded to the implementation of joint economic projects in the formally disputed Southern Kuril Islands, and told Yukio Edano, the leader of Japan’s opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, that “Over the past year, the development of relations between Japan and Russia on the basis of agreements in Nagato (in 2016) reached an unprecedented level.”
The Southern Kuril Islands were incorporated into the Soviet Union at the end of the second world war, but their territorial status has been disputed by Japan ever since. A process of formal peace-negotiations began in 1956. In November 2018, President Putin and PM Abe agreed to accelerate the process of negotiations toward a formal peace treaty.
Over the previous 2 days, on January 20th and 21st, both ships and aircraft from the Russian Baltic Fleet and Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force had completed their first ever joint-exercises in the Arabian Sea, geared toward countering piracy. This is quite a noteworthy development when seen against the backdrop of 20th century Russo-Japanese relations.
Meanwhile, on January 21st, Russian ambassador to DPRK Alexander Matsegora held discussions with DPRK officials on joint-cooperation in the civil aviation sphere.
The simultaneous timing of these various cooperative exercises is quite deliberate.
To see what’s going on here, let’s reiterate the geo-strategic fundamentals of the East Asian theatre and from there attempt to surmise what Russian diplomacy is attempting to do.
Firstly, Japan’s history of expansionist impulses and territorial ambitions is rapidly becoming less relevant to the geo-strategic picture, for multiple reasons. In addition to the radical contraction of those territorial ambitions following the end of the second world war, the economic rise of China and Japan’s own severe contemporary demographic crisis simply makes it entirely unrealistic for Japan to continue to entertain imperial ambitions.
Secondly, the Atlanticist geo-strategic logic of deputizing Japan as a geo-strategic padlock to contain Eurasian expansion (the provenance of which begins with Halford Mackinder at the beginning of the 20th century) is also gradually becoming a less relevant geo-strategic factor as Atlanticist geo-strategic reach also contracts, notwithstanding Japan’s recent purchase of the Aegis Ashore missile defence system from the United States and the deployment of MK-41 launch-pads at Japanese missile-sites.
Thirdly, Russia and China are jointly the de facto guarantors of the DPRK’s security, and both have played significant diplomatic roles in denuclearization negotiations between the United States and DPRK.
Fourthly, as the reach of the Atlanticist project has contracted, Japan’s economic orbit has inevitably become more Asia-centred. Japan is set to participate in the East Asia Railroad Community initiative alongside South Korea, DPRK, Russia, China and Mongolia. Hopes are high that this structure could gradually develop into a broader framework for East Asian economic integration, encompassing expanded trade, cooperation in the energetics-sector, and security-cooperation. In this regard, we see something approaching a geo-political coup being pulled off. Rather than playing the role of a geo-strategic “padlock” at the eastern extremity of the Eurasian land-mass in order to contain Eurasian expansion (which Mackinder thought of, first and foremost, through the development of railways), Japan is now playing the role of an active participant in Eurasian continental infrastructural development.
In addition, we should note that security-cooperation between nations which might simultaneously be geo-strategic rivals, or even classifiable as geo-strategic “adversaries,” has consistently been emphasized by the Russian Foreign Ministry as a necessary component of the global security architecture which has to be rebuilt in the wake of the Pax Americana’s demise. In this regard, the recent joint naval exercise conducted by Russian and Japanese forces serves diplomatic and ideological purposes as much as it serves the purpose of joint security.
In a post-Atlanticist world, Japan’s only remaining reason to play the (proxy-)role of a geo-strategic rival to Russia disappears. However, that does not solve the historical problem of Japanese-Korean relations. As American hegemony contracts, Russia once again sees an opportunity to extend its sphere of influence through subtle diplomatic methods, by playing the role of broker. We have seen this elsewhere, most notably in the contemporary Middle East, where Russia maintains a formal alliance with Syria and a very strong informal strategic partnership with Iran, while simultaneously also maintaining quite friendly relations with Israel, and has not only militarily interceded in Syria but also attempted to moderate the Syrian conflict through Russian-Israeli diplomacy.
We need to remember that the historical episode of egregious American unilateral military adventurism in which we currently find ourselves was not geo-strategically possible before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Apart from small, localized excursions in the western hemisphere, the United States maintained a policy of militarily treading very carefully in the wider world during the Reagan era. Under these circumstances, President Reagan disingenuously attempted to cast the United States in the role of “honest broker” in the Lebanese conflict, for example. Today, Russia is growing into this “brokerage” role with far greater plausibility, as evidenced in its various diplomatic initiatives regarding Libya, Syria, and now East Asia. What we might call the “Pax Russica” is a new kind of peace, based on diplomacy rather than global military dominance. However, the broker nonetheless always collects a small fee, a diplomatic dividend.