Between June 19 and 21, 2018, Russia conducted missile-firing drills on Iturup, one of the four disputed Southern Kuril islands that are claimed by Japan as its Northern Territories. Although the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did issue a statement saying that the exercises were inconsistent with Japan's position and regrettable, Tokyo's response was muted. This fits a pattern of surprising Japanese indifference in the face of heightened Russian military activity.
In the last fiscal year, Japan scrambled jets 390 times to intercept approaching Russian aircraft. This figure was up by eighty-nine from fiscal 2016 and was only exceeded by the 500 scrambles provoked by China.
Russia’s military presence on the Kuril chain, which Japan controlled until 1945, has also increased. In November 2016, just ahead of President Putin’s visit to Japan, Russia announced the deployment of new anti-ship missiles to Iturup and Kunashir. At the start of 2018, Moscow ruled that combat jets could be deployed to Iturup. Construction is also beginning on a naval facility on Matua in the Northern Kurils, at the site of an old Japanese base.
Internationally, Moscow's growing military capabilities and allegedly destabilizing behavior have caused the United States to identify Russia as a major security threat. Japan, however, evidently does not share its ally's concerns. In addition to being reluctant to criticize Russian military activity in the region, the Japanese government is firmly committed to enhancing bilateral ties. These efforts have included twenty-one meetings between Prime Minister Abe and President Putin, as well as the pursuit of an eight-point economic cooperation plan.
Less often noted is that Japan is actively engaged in developing security cooperation with Russia. This goal is set out in the country’s most recent Diplomatic Bluebook. As well as describing the Japan-Russia relationship as “the bilateral relationship with the greatest potential,” Japan’s guiding document states that “building appropriate partnership relations with Russia in the region will contribute to Japanese national interests and regional peace and prosperity.”
Concrete steps have included the start of “2+2” talks between the countries’ foreign and defense ministers. This format, which is usually reserved for close security partners, was launched in 2013 and the third such meeting is expected to be held in Moscow on July 21. There is also regular contact between Yachi Shōtarō and Nikolai Patrushev, the heads of the countries’ security councils, and Japan has played host to senior Russian military officers, including Head of the Army Oleg Salyukov and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov in November and December 2017. These meetings are contentious since Patrushev and Gerasimov are subject to Western sanctions for “worldwide malign activity” and for threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Japan and Russia also continue to hold small-scale annual exercises between Russia’s Pacific Fleet and the Maritime Self-Defense Forces.
Japan’s willingness to ignore what others regard as Russia’s pattern of international aggression has caused bafflement in Western capitals. Furthermore, this has given way to anger when Japan has shown reluctance to condemn Russia for its most egregious actions, including its military intervention in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia was responsible for the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 and allegedly poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March 2018. Given all of this, what explains Japan’s policy of constant accommodation towards Moscow?
Echoes of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact
Prime Minister Abe says that he wants to maintain positive relations with Russia to pursue a breakthrough in the countries' territorial dispute. Yet this is only part of the reasoning, not least because Abe must realize that there is no serious prospect of the four islands being returned. A more fundamental explanation is that Tokyo's Russia policy is shaped by Japan's deteriorating security situation and its leadership's attempts to plan for a future regional crisis.
Speaking at the end of 2017, Abe warned that Japan is facing the “most severe security environment ever” in the post-war era. This consists of an assertive China, a nuclear-armed North Korea, and a United States whose commitment to its allies is regularly called into question by President Trump. In this context, the Japanese leadership realizes that it needs to take a more proactive approach to security.
The Abe administration is, therefore, aiming to develop Japan’s military capabilities and to loosen restrictions on their use. It is also looking to diversify Japan’s security partners, primarily by deepening defense ties with Australia, India, and some European powers.
When it comes to Russia, Japan’s goal is more specific. Japanese strategists see Russia as a country in a long-term decline with an unfavorable economic outlook. On its own, it does not pose a threat to the status quo in East Asia. Japan’s concern, however, is that Russia’s isolation from the West since the annexation of Crimea has caused Moscow to increasingly make common cause with Beijing. In the event of a regional crisis, such as clashes over the disputed Senkaku Islands, Tokyo’s nightmare is that it would face a Sino-Russian united front, while support from the United States would be equivocal.
To neutralize this danger, the Japanese leadership has sought to avoid antagonizing Russia and has tried to use cooperation to encourage the Russian leadership to distance their country from China. This has echoes of Japan’s motivations for signing the Neutrality Pact with the Soviet Union in April 1941. On that occasion too, the aim was to secure Japan’s northern frontier so that attention could be focused on more pressing security concerns. The 1941 agreement was also relevant to China since it was intended as a way of stopping Moscow from providing military aid to Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist forces during the Sino-Japanese War.
A short-sighted approach
Although the logic of Japan's security policy towards Russia is clear, it is unlikely to prove fruitful. For a start, the relationship between Moscow and Beijing continues to become ever closer. This was reaffirmed when Putin met Xi Jinping in Beijing in June, and the Chinese leader hailed the Sino-Russian relationship as "the highest-level, most profound and strategically most significant relationship between major countries in the world." The fact that this relationship has not developed into a full alliance owes nothing to Japan's efforts but is instead because neither side currently sees the need to involve themselves too deeply in the other's international problems. It is also apparent that Japan's attempts to foster security ties with Moscow have not led to a reduction in Russian military activity on Japan's northern frontier.