Think Tank
Moscow and Tokyo Exploring Pathways for East Asia in an Era of Growing US-China Rivalry

On July 8, the Valdai Club and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation held a joint online conference on security in the Asia-Pacific region with opening remarks by Yohei Sasakawa, Honorary Chairman of SPF, and Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club.

 The US-China rivalry is becoming a constant feature of world politics. An improvement of relations between the United States and China should not be expected soon, as evidenced by the first actions of the Biden administration. In America, a bipartisan consensus on China has taken shape, and Biden’s attempts to formalise accusations of genocide in Xinjiang and culpability in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic rule out normalisation. The United States is actively rallying its allies and partners, with Japan being the most important of them in Asia, to work together in the areas of security and economy in order to counter China’s challenge to the existing US-led order. Japan’s close alliance with the United States was reaffirmed at the Quad (Japan, US, Australia, India) summit meeting (online), Japan-US Security Consultative Committee (Japan-U.S “2+2”), Japan-US summit meeting and the G7 summit meeting. As noted by Japanese experts, the United States is making it clear to China that a kind of coalition is being formed around it. Thus, the American president has held a number of summits with leaders of foreign states — but not with President Xi. In Japan, the toughening of American policy towards China is generally welcomed, as Beijing’s strengthening is perceived with concern. However, due to the immediate proximity of the two countries, direct confrontation (especially a military one) is seen as extremely undesirable. 

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 Meanwhile, in China itself, there is a change in domestic political rhetoric, with phrases that refer to the nation’s Civil War era used increasingly. As noted by Russian researchers, China’s goal is to rebuild its economy amid the protracted crisis in relations with the United States, and its prospects in this struggle look rather optimistic. Amid the pandemic, China has consolidated its economic position and, despite a pivot inward, became the EU’s largest economic partner in 2020. It continued to increase its military expenditures, which, are structured more advantageously even though they are merely a third what the US spends.

While the United States spends the bulk of the allocated funds on foreign bases and military campaigns, China spends its money on new weapons, research and development. China’s nuclear forces are growing — they are expected to double or quadruple in the coming years. China has a better economic structure for enduring a protracted arms race, and the balance of power is gradually shifting in Beijing’s favour. Attaining military superiority over China, even as part of a coalition, is becoming an untenable prospect, Russian experts believe. China can fend off US moves in relying on its economic power, and no country today is able to sacrifice economic relations with the People’s Republic. 

Meanwhile, an integral aspect of the US-China confrontation is the decoupling of the two countries’ economies, which will inevitably affect other states. Japan, emphasising the need to ensure the security of supply chains (which essentially means scaling back dependence on supplies from China) is concerned about negative consequences for its economy. Japanese experts have suggested that the decoupling will be gradual and selective, affecting specific areas such as semiconductor manufacturing. In general, resolving issues of national security without harming the economy is seen as Tokyo’s central challenge at the present stage. 

Moscow is worried about the worsening of the US-China confrontation, and especially signs of the formation of a bloc system in East Asia. It reasonably believes that any anti-Chinese initiatives of the West will ultimately be directed against Russia, especially since China and Russia are increasingly listed as threats of the same order in American strategic documents. That is why the idea of a formal military alliance between Moscow and Beijing is floated from time to time, something Russia previously believed was not necessary.
At the same time, Russia is not interested in the hegemony of any one player, including China, in Asia.

Its interests are best served by a region with a lot of independent players in a state of constant bargaining and mutual balancing, Russian experts noted. According to their Japanese counterparts, Japan clearly understands Russia’s long-term strategic interest in this region. That is why it has been trying to form networks of cooperation between the states of the region, considering countries such as India, Vietnam and Russia as its potential partners. 

These efforts do not go unnoticed in Russia. Although at the official level the concept of the Indo-Pacific has been criticised as aimed at encircling China, experts note that Japan (along with India) was looking for common ground with Russia in the context of the Indo-Pacific in areas such as the economy, energy and security. An important precedent is the first-ever Russian-Japanese anti-piracy drills held in January 2020 in the Arabian Sea, north-western part of the Indian Ocean.

However, the success of the Russian-Japanese partnership largely depends on the state of relations between the United States and Russia. If they stabilise — even at the level of “stabilisation of rivalry”, then this will give Moscow and Tokyo more strategic space, Russian experts believe. At the same time, the most important challenge is the possibility that American medium-range missiles could be deployed in Japan, which would have extremely negative consequences for bilateral relations.

Discussing regional configurations, panellists paid particular attention to South Korea. Recently, there have been concerns in the West about the rapprochement between South Korea and China and the possibility that in the event of an intense inter-bloc confrontation, Seoul could choose the side of Beijing. However, both Japanese and Russian experts consider such a scenario unlikely. Despite the fact that South Korea does not intend to join the Quad alliance seen as aimed at encircling China, it is already participating in military activities under its auspices. So, South Korean soldiers took part in the Red Flag exercises in Alaska in June and Talisman Sabre in Australia in July — notably, along with the Japanese, despite the troubled relations between the two countries.

Moreover, in recent years, anti-Chinese sentiments have been growing in South Korea, especially after Beijing imposed sanctions against Seoul for the deployment of the American THAAD missile defence system. Today, anti-Chinese rhetoric is on the rise among both the right and the left. The communiqué signed following the visit of President Moon Jae-in (who is considered the most anti-American South Korean politician) to Washington last May does not mention China even once, but criticises it many times indirectly. Experts believe that South Korea will drift further towards the US in the next decade — and there is little disagreement on that between the left and the right. Japanese experts are not so sure of the near term prospects for improvement of Japan-South Korea bilateral relations under current internal political situations of both sides. However, according to Russian experts, South Korean-Japanese relations could improve in the longer term. Korea is a deeply nationalist country, and nationalism needs an enemy. If now it is Japan that plays this role, then soon China may take it over, returning back to the status quo seen at the dawn of Korean nationalism 100-150 years ago.

Finally, another new factor in the regional configuration is the strengthening of the European presence. Since about 2013, France and the UK have become more active in the South China Sea. Their goals partly coincide with the American ones, but they also have their own agenda, focused on maintaining their relevance in world affairs. If in Japan such steps are perceived positively, in Russia, they are seen with concern — as an increase in bipolar dynamics.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.