Of Bombers and Alliances

All the talk about the Russian bombers that were face to face with a U.S. aircraft carrier on February 9 centers around the Washington-Moscow relationship. But what does the incident mean for Japan?

Tupolev-95 long-range bombers have been plying their trade since the Korean War. They don't suddenly wander into Japanese airspace 650 km (400 miles) south of Tokyo by mistake, do they?

The timing was particularly odd, given the relative calm that prevails over Japan-Russia relations (in contrast to Russia's increasingly contentious relations with the United States). In fact, the two governments are reportedly working on a Golden Week visit by Prime Minister Fukuda to pay his respects to President Putin, just before the latter makes the switch to prime minister himself, while remaining the focal point of the public mandate and political power.

Japan, of course, wants access to Russia's natural resources, as well as the swelling pocketbooks of its people, who are eager for all the luxury autos and other assorted gadgets that Toyota and Panasonic can sell. The Japanese government also holds out hope that the Northern Territories might yet be returned-or at least continues to make gestures that it does.

On the Russian side, it's a buyer's market. However, Japan is a useful hedge against China. Make no mistake, notwithstanding developments such as the settlement of border disputes and the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia has never stopped seeing China as its Far East strategic threat. Contrasts in demographics (Russia, a shrinking 142 million; China, a more stable 1.3 billion) and economic profiles (Russia, resource-based economy; China, industrial economy) ensure that the fear will be around for the foreseeable future. Russia wouldn't mind a larger Japanese footprint in Siberia, and beyond for that matter. If Russia can manage to loosen Japan-U.S. ties in the bargain, all for the better.

So it turns out that the Tu-95 was part of a bomber squadron on its way to buzz the USS Nimitz and otherwise annoy the Americans. It is payback for Kosovo, it's payback for Ukraine, Georgia, NATO expansion, IMF receivership, and so on. Note that Japan has a peripheral role at best with regard to perhaps a couple of these and other post-cold-war grievances.

Russia has little by way of strategic quarrels with Japan. The blip on the Japanese radar turned out to be a passing shadow cast by the geopolitical struggle that Russia, with a reinvigorated economy, has chosen to resume against an insensitive (or so it sees, not totally without justification) and aggressive (likewise) West.

Most calls for a thorough review of Japan's national security, i.e., the Japan-U.S. relationship, focus on China and, in a more acute sense, North Korea. After the Far East, the debate leaps halfway across the globe to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. But Japan already distances itself from the United States where the Palestine Question is concerned. The broader context for this is, of course, the Middle East and its fossil fuels. But the national interests of the two allies appear to be almost as dissonant where Russia is concerned.

It is time for Japanese policymakers to think hard about Russia as well.


Jun Okumura is a counselor at The Eurasia Group.