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Japan Charts More Independent Course to Improve Russian Relations

The lion’s share of Japan-centered press coverage this past week was focused on the country’s hosting of the G-7 meeting, as well as President Obama’s historic visit toHiroshima and subsequent call for a nuclear-free world. However, the larger picture is one of Japan realizing, irrespective of U.S. wishes, that it needs better relations with Russia in order to more effectively balance China within the region.

“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”-Lord Palmerston

<figcaption>Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Sochi on May 6, 2016.</figcaption>
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Sochi on May 6, 2016.

The Kuril Islands dispute between Japan and Russia, which prevents a formal peace treaty from being signed between the two, is already well-known. Additionally, Japan stands to benefit immensely from the proximity of Russia’s vast natural resources, including oil, gas, and rare-earth metals.

These resources, and subsequent Japanese investment in Russia’s Far East, would in fact allow Japan to be more secure. If China ever decided to threaten Japan’s trade in resources from Africa and the Middle East, which traverses the South China Sea, Japan’s economy would be at risk.What is less apparent, however, is Tokyo’s improved bargaining position between both Washington and Moscow. Its position is improved because both the U.S. and Russia realize the true value of having Japan in their corner in order to counter China’s long-term ambitions within the region.

While the argument may indeed by made that Japan is already fully aligned with the U.S. due to their mutual defense treaty, this did not stop Japanese Prime Minister Abe from meeting with Russian President Putin in Sochi in the past month. Previously, the U.S. expressed its desire for the meeting to only occur after Japan’s G-7 meeting this past week.

Japan, seemingly, is aiming for more wiggle room in its alliance with the U.S. Multi-vector foreign policy strategies of other states within the region, primarily India and Vietnam, have been successful precisely because these states have managed to leverage concerns by both the U.S. and Russia regarding China’s rise. ASEAN as a whole, also utilizes this strategy for the same goal. Most crucially, however, neither India nor Vietnam are treaty allies of the U.S. While not suggesting that Japan will revisit its U.S. alliance anytime soon, it is clear that Tokyo is aiming towards its own semi- or “hybrid multi-vector” foreign policy strategy.

Treaty of Portsmouth Echoes

Recently, the International Institute for Strategic Studies released a report recommending that the U.S. not allow a deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations in the Euro-Atlantic area to negatively impact relations within the Asia-Pacific. With respect to Japan, the report specifically recommends that the U.S. not obstruct the country’s efforts to improve relations with Russia, as long as those initiatives don’t contravene Japan’s treaty obligations to the U.S. In essence, the U.S. needs to realize that Japan’s outreach to Russia provides more security for Asia as a whole, more effectively balancing China, which mirrors the U.S.’s own objectives as well.

The situation is somewhat analogous to the security environment in Europe as well. Just as more, not less, European cooperation with Russia would improve overall security on the continent with respect to refugees, terrorism, ISIS, etc., more Japanese cooperation with Russia will improve the overall security environment in Asia. The IISS report also stresses that Tokyo already realizes this and will proceed with continued Russian overtures even despite U.S. hesitancy.

The challenge for America is to realize that Tokyo’s maneuvers do not threaten the U.S. position, but in fact, only improve it with respect to both China and Russia. With respect to Russia, Japan’s position is somewhat comparable to that of Germany. Germany’s business relationship with Russia and the rapport between the two countries’ leaders have helped to mitigate to an extent the poor state of U.S.-Russia relations.

Japan is in a similar position in the Asia-Pacific and is actually potentially stronger because it, unlike Germany, does not belong to a regional grouping where a myriad of interests must be factored in many decisions. Lastly, the importance of these regional relations to the U.S. is underscored by the approaching anniversary of the Treaty of Portsmouth, in which the U.S. itself brokered the eventual end of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.

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