When one thinks of Northeast Asia and its political actors, they typically do not think of Russia, despite the country occupying an enormous Pacific coastline and bordering China, North Korea, and Japan (maritime). This is largely attributable to the lack of focus it placed on its eastern neighbors after the end of the Cold War. However, what started as a gradual turn to the East a few years ago has now taken on a new momentum in the context of the West’s recent economic and political aggression against Russia. Consequently, Russia’s latest moves can be seen as a pivot to Asia.
Although the 1996 strategic relationship with China underpins this entire endeavor, it should not be presumed that it composes the entire pivot. Rather, Russia has a very strong interest in working together with Japan (as does Japan with Russia), but the US-manufactured Kuril Islands dispute has been strategically used to retard bilateral rapprochement between the two since the end of World War II. If Japan gathers the courage to cast off the US’ political chains and relinquishes its ‘claims’ to the Southern Kurils, it can break free from the anachronistic and stifling unipolar world order and begin entering the dynamic multipolar one.
The Kuril Islands saga has its roots in 1855 when Russia and Japan signed the Treaty of Shimoda, which granted Japan control of the four currently disputed islands while Russia legitimized its control over the rest. They also divided the island of Sakhalin between them. This arrangement changed under the 1875 Treaty of Saint Petersburg, when Russia was granted all of Sakhalin in exchange for giving Japan all of the Kurils. 30 years later, the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War once more bequeathed the southern half of Sakhalin to Japan, where it remained until the end of World War II.
In the twilight days at the end of the war, per the Yalta Agreement reached by The Big Three in February 1945, the USSR declared war on Japan and sent its forces to successfully recapture the entire Kuril Islands chain. Herein lies the bone of contention, as Japan stated that the four islands in question are not part of the Kurils and that the USSR should not have taken control of them. The US, being the occupier of post-war Japan and exercising suzerainty over it, obviously influenced Tokyo’s stance due to its regional Cold War political posturing. The failure of the USSR (and now Russia) and Japan to sign a formal peace treaty has stymied relations since then and served as a stumbling block to greater post-Cold War interaction.
Small Islands, Big Significance
What may seem like rinky-dink islands to most people are actually very important pieces of real estate to geostrategists. For the Soviets, the Kurils provided a defensive position against US-mutual security partner Japan, as well as preventing this tag-team from controlling access to the Sea of Okhotsk. After the Cold War, however, it also became important as an integral part of the Russian state, which was by then facing threats to its territorial integrity in the Northern Caucasus. Due to the secessionist wars in Chechnya, the Russian state is adamant about protecting all territories that it administers, including the Kurils. As a case in point, Medvedev visited Kunashir, one of the islands claimed by Japan, in 2012 and said that it and the entire Kurils chain are “an important part of the Sakhalin region and an important part of the Russian land.”
Japan still views the four Southern Kurils islands as being part of its ‘Northern Territories’ and illegally occupied by Russia, a view which the US also supports. To a Japan that is reawakening its dormant nationalist sentiment, the Kuril Islands question can galvanize the domestic audience and distract them from bitter economic realities. Japan promotes the ‘Day of the Northern Territories’ and has also recently set up the Territorial Sovereignty Office of Planning and Coordination, thereby showing the importance that the Japanese political elite is now placing on Tokyo’s various territorial disputes with its neighbors, including Russia.
If left on their own without third-party obstruction, Russia and Japan could have probably already solved this row by now, but the US has a vested interesting in making sure this does not happen. It understands that the more that Japan behaves as an independent actor and conducts its policies according to its own interests, the less the US can influence its “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and thus the region as a whole. Rapprochement between Russia and Japan and the crippling of American influence in East Asia is one of the nightmare scenarios for US foreign policy in Eurasia, hence why it uses its sway to make sure that Japan’s pro-American political elite retain and occasionally enflame the Kurils issue to prevent this.
Gas for Investment
Russia and Japan actually have a shared national interest in increasing relations, thereby making it all the more unnatural that the Kurils issue has dragged on so long and proving the strong degree that the US manages this process. Japan consumes enormous amounts of natural resources, just about all of them imported from abroad, and it is the world’s top LNG importer. Global demand for natural gas is expected to increase faster than any other natural resource, rising 64% between 2010 and 2040, and Japan will surely remain among the top consumers. This is even more so now that the formerly dominant nuclear power industry suffered a critical setback in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, although Japan is flirting with reactivating its reactors.
Russia, the global gas giant, can easily fulfill Japan’s burgeoning energy need without much effort. Besides LNG shipments, it could more cost-effectively build a pipeline directly from Sakhalin to Hokkaido. In exchange for such a gas godsend from Russia, Japan could be enticed to help develop the stagnant Russian Far East economy, whose growth via the help of East Asian states is one of Russia’s national priorities. Looked at it through this mutually beneficial prism, boosting Russian-Japanese ties is a win-win for both parties and in each actor’s logical interests to do so.
Leading From Behind in Northeast Asia
The US’ primary strategy in preventing Russia and Japan from deepening their energy cooperation is to co-opt the country as its regional Lead From Behind (LFB) proxy. It wants Japan to take the initiative in achieving American geopolitical objectives that its elite are misled into believing are also advantageous for themselves. Part and parcel of this approach is to create a strategy of tension between Japan on one side and Russia and (especially!) China on the other, enflamed by Tokyo’s recently renewed insistence on territorial claims from both states. It is not Russia and China that want to change the map in Northeast Asia, it’s Japan, and the US is pushing it to do so in order to offset both of these titans and keep them away from constructive ties with its “unsinkable aircraft carrier”.
Japan also shares some similarities with Turkey, the US’ model for a LFB partner. Both Turkey and Japan are regional powers itching for hegemony and influence promulgation over their former spheres, and their leaders have a specific vision for how to transform their countries. While Erdogan hopes to consolidate power by changing the constitution and promoting Neo-Ottomanism, Abe has reinterpreted the constitution to re-militarize Japan and is fond of controversial Imperial Japanese historical revisionism. While ostensibly embarking on these transformations to strengthen their countries’ ‘independence’, in essence all that this does is make them unipolar American vassals stumbling through the multipolar world in pursuit of their patrons’ advantage.
The Russian Bogeyman
The US has tried to scare Japan into thinking that deeper energy cooperation with Russia could allow Moscow to exert influence over Tokyo’s policies. Not only is this hypocritical coming from the US (which still unofficially guides Japan’s foreign affairs), but it is also blatantly false. The EU’s sanction war against Russia illustrates that customer countries can still try to enact political leverage against their partner, regardless of economic consequences, if they are ideologically motivated to do so. Anyhow, it is not forecasted that Japan would even move in this direction anytime soon because it has already joined the sanctions bandwagon against Russia, per the US’ nudging. It would also presumably demand that the Kuril Islands spat be resolved in its favor before pursuing any deepening of relations, which, as the recent Russian military drills there suggest, is not going to happen.
The US long ago sabotaged the possibility of a Soviet/Russian-Japanese post-World War II rapprochement by purposely constructing the Kuril Islands dispute, the first and longest lasting ‘frozen conflict’ of the post-World War II era, to fend off such a prospect. As is seen, by co-opting Japan and its leadership into the LFB framework being deployed across the world, the US has now instructed its proxy to activate the destabilizing disputes with Russia and China, although doing so is contrary to the country’s national interests. With pro-American and nationally revisionist Abe steering the “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, Japan will never reach its fated multipolar destination, as in order to do so, the first thing it needs to do is irrevocably relinquish its claims to the Kurils without preconditions and enter into strategic high-level cooperation with the engine of the evolving world order, Russia.