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.