Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traveled to Moscow April 29 for a state visit, the first such visit by a Japanese head of state in a decade. Greeted by ceremonial troops of the Kremlin Regiment with an ‘imperial’ flavor, Abe proceeded to meet with Pres. Putin and his cabinet to discuss a range of issues.
Abe’s trip to Moscow is an effort at warming relations with Russia and begin a process to bring to a close the final chapter of WWII for Japan; the lack of a formal peace treaty with Russia. Technically, Japan and Russia have remained in a state of war since 1945.
The barrier to a final peace treaty has always been the issue of four Japanese islands seized by the Soviet Red Army in the closing days of WWII. Japan maintained claim to the islands and until now, first the former USSR and the succeeding Russian Federation have maintained that sovereignty of the islands were not open for discussion if there were to be a final peace treaty.
Moscow’s stance on the islands has now changed. Pres. Putin has vowed to begin negotiations on the final status of the four islands with Japan and instructed the Russian Foreign Ministry accordingly. Additionally, Putin pushed for massive Russian investment in Japan’s energy industry during his discussions with Abe. Japan is striving to realign away from heavy reliance on nuclear power since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2010.
What is driving this sudden change of feelings towards Japan in Moscow can be summed up in one word: China.
Pres. Putin and his general staff are growing increasingly concerned about the massive buildup of Chinese ground forces. A buildup largely ignored by Western military experts who seem fixated on Chinese naval and air power developments which are far more fantasy than reality.
Moscow seeks to give Beijing a strategic ‘migraine’ by cozying up to Japan which under the Abe government seeks to reestablish itself as a player on the world diplomatic and military stages; and to provide Japan with ‘skin in the game’ of the Russian Far East by tying Japan’s energy interests directly into the natural resources contained within that territory. A Russian Far East which is coveted by Beijing for long term economic and territorial ambitions.
Putin will likely tie any final treaty with Japan directly to Japanese participation in energy projects in the Russian Far East. If successful, the four disputed Japanese islands being returned to Japan in some fashion would simply be the ‘cherry’ on top of the deal. The possibility of military agreements cannot be ruled out either.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian Navy has been severely neglected; particularly the Russian Pacific Fleet which is now being further strained by Moscow’s decision to augment its Mediterranean presence with Pacific based warships. Russian naval power in the Pacific is now the weakest it has been since Imperial Russia’s defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.
A Russo-Japanese rapprochement and establishment of Japanese economic stakes in the Russian Far East could well open the possibility of Japan’s powerful navy participating as a deterrent to Chinese moves against the Russian Pacific region. This is what Pres. Putin covets most in the short term, especially Japan’s well developed anti-submarine capabilities. Japan, would gain a powerful ally on the Asian mainland without having to commit its land forces to the mainland, which would be politically explosive given Japan’s imperial past.
Though Prime Minister Abe made the trip to Moscow, the initiative is with Pres. Putin due to the combined factors of Chinese aggression against Japan with regard to the Senkaku islands; the warming of relations between China and South Korea, something Japan tried and failed to do; and the U.S. ‘Pivot to Asia’ quickly revealing itself to be no more than a cloak of empty words to cover America’s gradual disengagement from European defense.
Pres. Putin’s effort vis-à-vis Japan is in line with a strategy of encirclement of China which includes major joint Russia-India defense projects and courting the government of Vietnam on defense deals, naval bases and economic ties; a strategy so far flourishing in a regional leadership vacuum evidenced by the total lack of any U.S. deterrence to ongoing Chinese bullying of its neighbors.
Bullying such as; military harassment of Japan in the air and on the sea over the Senkaku Islands dispute, border incursions into India by Chinese troops, China’s occupation of the Spratly Islands off the coast of the Philippines and Paracel Islands off Vietnam, and now China brazenly staking a claim to islands off the coast Borneo in Malaysia; quite a distance from China’s territorial sea limits, but astride vital commercial shipping lanes which China would have to keep free of Russian submarines in the event of a war, in order the maintain the flow of Middle East oil to its commercial and military industries.