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What a tangled web we weave: North Asian strategic relations

Image credit: Kremlin (Labelled for non-commercial reuse with modification)

The Second World War is not yet over. Russia and Japan have failed to sign a peace treaty in the seven decades since the conflict ended. Critical to this failure is the disputed status of four islands to Russia’s east and Japan’s north. Known to Russians as the Kuril Islands and in Japan as the Northern Territories, they have an outsized impact on both bilateral and regional relations.

In the Second World War’s final days, the Soviet Union seized much of Japan’s North Asian territory, including the Kuril Islands. Under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan was forced to surrender its claims to the Kuril Islands chain. However, the treaty did not recognise the Soviet Union’s sovereignty over the islands it had captured and Japan argues that the four islands in question are not part of the island chain it surrendered. The counterclaim by Russia, which inherited the islands, is that its sovereignty was recognised in subsequent agreements, an argument Japan rejects.

On 20 November, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The preliminary talks come ahead of Putin’s visit to Japan in mid-December, in which the islands are a key talking point. Additionally, Abe proposed an eight-point economic cooperation plan in May and the two leaders are expected to follow up its progress. Tokyo hopes the economic plan will give it leverage to push the territorial issue.

Behind Japan’s attempts to resolve the territorial dispute is the cold politics of strategy. Tokyo is watching with increasing nervousness as rival China outpaces it in military and economic strength. Abe has pushed heavily to revise Japan’s ‘pacifist’ constitution so that the Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) can be expanded and counter Beijing’s military development. Improving relations with Russia would further offset Japan’s strategic disadvantages.

China-Russia relations are often considered close. They are both members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – a security-oriented group – and they share key national interests, including opposition to US global hegemony. They are also major trading partners, with Russia exporting energy resources and arms in exchange for electric and mechanical equipment.

Yet Russia holds little love for China. There are few ties between the two states that are not based on mutual interest. They skirmished over their long border as recently as 1969 and they compete for regional influence, particularly in Central Asia. Even their economic relations are fraught; though Moscow heralded a $400 billion gas deal with China in 2014, observers queried if Beijing had taken advantage of Russia’s economic woes to extract a low price (the exact figure is a commercial secret). Similarly, Russian arms exported to China are allegedly reverse-engineered and the knockoffs sold overseas, undercutting Russia’s market share.

Furthermore, China is a latent threat to Russia’s security. Siberia is home to just 25 million Russians (a dwindling figure) but two-thirds of the country’s essential gas reserves. Over the border, in energy-hungry China, lives 100 million Chinese. The result is clear-cut: China’s influence over Russia’s eastern territories will grow, much to Moscow’s consternation.

It is therefore no surprise that Tokyo hopes to split the two powers and inveigle Moscow into balancing against a rising China. Yet events conspire to thwart this plan.

Miscommunication is one major problem. Just days after the Abe-Putin meeting, Russia deployed anti-ship missiles to the disputed islands, provoking a sharp response from Japan. Though the move seems threatening, the Kremlin was quick to reassure Tokyo that the December talks were still on the agenda. The deployment may not be targeting Japan; the same type of missile system was concurrently moved into Russia’s European enclave of Kaliningrad in a bid to outflank NATO’s ballistic missile defence. Given the July decision by the US to deploy missile interceptors in South Korea (to counter the North Korean nuclear threat), Russia’s intention may be to outmanoeuvre the US to the east as well.

Other actors will also disrupt Tokyo’s plans. The election of Donald Trump as US president was a strategic surprise. Trump’s pro-Russia attitude may see an alleviation of Western sanctions on Russia, diminishing the value of Japan’s economic leverage. That said, closer US-Russia relations could improve Japan’s security in the long-term. However, China will not remain a neutral player and may attempt to woo Russia back with more generous defence and economic deals. This is a game Japan is unlikely to win.

It is doubtful Japan will regain sovereignty of all the Northern Territories. At best, it can hope to regain two of the islands and some concessions over access to the other two. It is even less likely Tokyo will draw Russia into a proxy alliance against China. Even attempting to do so may worry China enough that the plan backfires. Nevertheless, Japan could create enough distrust between the two North Asian mainland giants to take pressure off itself. In a strategic environment as complex and dangerous as North Asia, this would be a significant victory.

William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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