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Japan, Russia Build Ties As Asian Balance Shifts

Japan and Russia have agreed to expand ties and are trying to work around if not resolve their dispute over the ownership of territories the Soviet Union seized from Japan at the end of World War Two.  Russia seems to be hinting that further progress on the islands may be possible after Russian presidential elections later this year.

The Japan Times reports on a meeting between the Japanese and Russian foreign ministers that could open a new era in relations between two countries who have worries in common about China’s growing clout in the Far East.

Japan-Russia relations have remained in the deep freeze for a long time.  The territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands (small islands that stretch between Japan’s Hokkaido and Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula) reflects in part Japan’s bitterness over Stalin’s 1945 stab in the back.  Japan honored its non-aggression pact with the Soviets in 1941 when Hitler was at the gates of Moscow and a Japanese attack in the east could have been fatal.  The troops that many believe saved the USSR were transferred from the Far East. In 1945 Stalin showed his gratitude by sending the Red Army into Japanese occupied Manchuria and Korea even as the US dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,

Beyond historical grudges, the islands have strategic, fishing and perhaps economic importance as well.  Undersea oil seems to be turning up in a lot of places these days.

Japanese-Russian economic ties remain well below their potential.  An estimated 5 million people travel between Japan and South Korea and Japan and China each year, says the Japan Times.  Travel between Russia and Japan: less than 150,000 per year.

Estrangement between Russia and Japan has been something China could count on since 1945.  The thaw in relations between energy rich Russia and technology rich Japan is no doubt ringing some alarm bells in Beijing where, lately, almost all of the geopolitical news has been bad.  Chinese fears of hostile encirclement will be reaching fever pitch as the US, India and Japan deepen relations with Myanmar, Japan and Russia make nice, and the US moves to increase its presence in the Philippines and Singapore — on top of its earlier announced plans to station marines in Australia.

This Year of the Dragon is off to an interesting start.

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  • Lexington Green

    This is a vindication of Realist IR thinking. With no central direction or agreement, a containment coalition is forming piece by piece in response to a major system level change — the increase in Chinese relative power. The recent diplomatic initiatives of the USA only worked because of fear of rising Chinese power. China would have needed the utmost delicacy to minimize the perception of menace, which is real, based on ecisting and latent capacities, China has instead indulged in the bluster that all rising powers give vent to.

  • Ed

    “Japan honored its non-aggression pact with the Soviets in 1941 …”

    That is half the truth. Truer still to say the Japanese wouldn’t have dishonored its non-agression pact with the Soviets because they had learned their lesson at the battle of Khalkin-Gol in the summer of 1939. By all accounts they got their heads handed to them by the untried Soviet Army.

    The Japanese made up their minds after that to avoid confrontations with the Russians at all costs. Notions of good behavior did not enter into the calculations.

  • Kris

    “Japan’s bitterness over Stalin’s 1945 stab in the back”

    The etiquette of Risk supports Stalin.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    China has only itself to blame, it is constantly rattling it’s saber, starting with its biggest customer America, it threatens Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, India, and Russia. You can’t make that much noise and not get a reaction. What a nasty neighbor.

  • willis

    “Russia seems to be hinting that further progress on the islands may be possible after Russian presidential elections later this year.”

    It’s always going to happen after the next elections isn’t it.

  • J R Yankovic

    It seems to me that from a certain longterm standpoint Japan has much to teach, and Russia a lot to learn, about rebuilding a viable society out of the “wreckage” of the 1990s. Certainly if my reading is accurate their modern histories show no lack of parallels. Both ruinously overreached themselves and were then retracted humiliatingly by neighboring powers. Both modernized at breakneck speed in the latter 19th century only to experience devastating crackups in the course of the 20th. Both know what it is to collide with each other and with the West – in the latter instance at incalulable cost to themselves – and also how to avoid colliding. Both had to rebuild their societies “from the ground up” more than once. Both have long been more or less marginal to their respective civilizational “centers” – China and Europe – and have compensated for the ensuing sense of inferiority by developing distinct cults or variations on the theme of emperor-worship: Shinto in the case of Japan, Neo-Byzantine “caesaropapism” in the case of Russia (each being, in short, “Middle Kingdom” fantasies which nobody but themselves seems to have taken very seriously – in notable contrast to the habit, in certain periods, of Westerners and other non-Chinese to pander or play up to China’s sense of being the center of the world). One can note also a certain natural complementarity: Japan has a skilled, educated, and most importantly RE-educatable workforce (i.e., no sun is ever COMPLETELY set – the moral being: Never underestimate ANYone); Russia has vast untapped or poorly exploited resources, plus a fairly solid – though for now somewhat eclipsed – tradition of scientific and technical education and even, I’m told, achievement. Not least, Japan has volumes it could teach an educable Russia – or for that matter, not a few Chinese and Americans – concerning HOW to be a Nation: for example, how NOT to hold the great masses of your people in contempt, and most vitally how to tend and care for the ways in which your people treat EACH OTHER (so that they don’t become unreliable, squabbling, step-on-your-neighbor SOBs in the event of crisis or catastrophe). A rare enough skill and talent in today’s world, and one in particular of which nobody would accuse the Chinese Empire in any of its guises, past or present.

    Lastly, I can’t think of two “trans-regional” powers of global stature who stand to lose more, in terms of long-term rational self-interest, by
    1) growing estrangement from the US and its allies;
    2) the growth of hyperpoliticized – or eventually even militarized – “hot religion”;
    3) mainland Chinese hegemony over greater central and eastern Asia.

    In sum, pretty natural allies, or at least partners, it seems to me.

  • Luke Lea

    Everyone’s afraid of China. Maybe corporate America should stop building them up and destroying the industrial base in their own country in the process?

    This is not an indictment of private enterprise. Corporations do what they have to do to survive based on the rules of the game.

    It is the rules of the game — made in Washington DC — that have to be changed.

    Stiff tariffs on Chinese imports and an end to the corporate income tax would be good places to start.

    Our “humanitarian” intervention in China is having unintended consequences.

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