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Russia and Japan in Search of Strategic Empathy

On April 15, the Valdai Discussion Club and the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) held an online discussion on regional strategic changes and prospects for bilateral relations. The meeting, which brought together leading experts on the region, was held in a closed-door format. The JIIA’s summary of the event is available in English and Japanese.

Seven months ago today, the government of Shinzo Abe, who had been Japan’s prime minister for a record eight years, resigned. Under his watch, Japan significantly intensified its foreign policy, including vis-à-vis Russia. Curiously, amid the growing confrontation between Russia and the West, Japan was one of the few Western-world countries maintaining a benevolent, or at least neutral, disposition towards Moscow. As Japanese experts often note, in 2014 Tokyo imposed sanctions against Russia (very limited, one might say, only nominal) solely due to US pressure. (That said, even such close US allies as South Korea and Israel refused to impose any sanctions against Russia at all, so sanctions solidarity is not one of the absolute rules of the game in the Western community).

The country’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, promised to continue the policy of his predecessor, including towards Russia. Perhaps one should not expect the leaders of the two countries to meet as often as under Abe, but the principles of Japan’s foreign policy remained unchanged. Tokyo seeks to play a more active role in Asia and is ready for a dialogue with all parties. This is welcomed in Russia, although the question arises: how independent can Japan’s position be in cases where its interests are contrary in one way or another to those of the United States?

A close military-political alliance with the United States is the most important foundation of Japanese foreign policy. While during the Cold War it was justified by the confrontation with the USSR, in recent years the image of a common enemy — China — has become more and more clearly refined. It should be noted that until recently, the use of confrontational rhetoric was not common among Japanese officials and experts. In Tokyo, the prospects for “containing” China are assessed more soberly than in Washington, and talk of a “new cold war” does not cause enthusiasm. That is why the Japanese vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which was proposed and consistently defended by Shinzo Abe, did not emphasise the confrontation with China, unlike the American one.

As the Valdai Club-JIIA discussion demonstrated, Russian experts are fully aware of the nuances which characterise the different visions of the Indo-Pacific. However, at the official level, Russia’s attitude to this concept remains negative: for Moscow, there are no differences between the American version and the strategies of other countries (and this is not only Japan, but also India, and the ASEAN countries), at least in public space. This, in turn, causes bewilderment from the Japanese side, which constantly emphasises that, in Japan’s vision, the Indo-Pacific is not a concept directed against China or anyone else.

At such moments, the parties need, as one of the participants in the discussion put aptly, “strategic empathy”, to allow them to put themselves in the place of another in assessing vital interests. Russia has learned from its interaction with the Western world that when it comes to strategic issues, the position of the US allies mirrors that of the hegemon, despite the presence of “dissenting opinions”. The US strategy for the Indo-Pacific, declassified in the last days of Trump’s presidency, is clearly aimed at creating alliances according to familiar patterns. It points directly to the desire to maintain a US-centric regional order and contain China. There is no reason to believe that the current American administration will change anything in this approach except rhetoric.

This bloc mentality, typical for the United States, is unacceptable for Moscow. Russia opposes both the bipolar confrontation in Asia and the domination of one power there, and considers the presence of several powerful and independent centres of power a guarantee of strategic stability. As the discussion showed, the Japanese side in principle supports the idea of strategic autonomy for the Asian powers, but fears of China’s hegemonic ambitions seem to justify any increased dependence on the United States in the strategic sphere.

Indeed, a US-centric regional order in Asia is unacceptable for both China and Russia, but some other countries are ready, if not to embrace it, then to consider it a lesser evil than a China-centric order. If the situation develops according to the principle of inter-bloc confrontation where only two alternatives are available, their choice is obvious (just as that of Russia). The prospect of China becoming a regional (or even global) hegemon, imposing its own rules, is the main source of Japan’s strategic fears. As for the strengthening of China at the expense of Russia, this could be called a strategic nightmare for Tokyo. Russian experts have made it clear that Moscow is not at all interested in such a scenario: for the Kremlin, the emergence of a bipolar world order is disadvantageous because Russia would risk becoming dependent on a stronger partner. As one of the participants stressed, this is neither acceptable for Russia’s leadership, nor its people.

At the same time, further rapprochement between Russia and China on strategic issues will be inevitable if antagonism in the region intensifies. Ultimately, in American doctrinal documents, China and Russia are increasingly referred to as “authoritarian challenge to the liberal international order”. Any containment measures used against China could also end up being applied against Russia.

Against the background of the discussion on strategic problems, the issues of bilateral relations are somewhat obscured. This has generally characterised the Russian-Japanese discussions in recent years. There is a plus: a full-fledged dialogue on the entire spectrum of regional issues seems more promising than talking about the “territorial issue” (which, according to Moscow, does not exist) and the peace treaty (the absence of which does not prevent the parties from interacting in the international arena).

Of course, this does not negate the fact that conclusion of the peace treaty is a goal towards which both sides must strive. However, this can only happen in an atmosphere of trust, which, as both Russian and Japanese experts have stated, the two sides lack. And here again one can refer to Russia’s experience with China. Moscow’s relations with Beijing are an example of building trust “from a low base”. In the 1960s the confrontation between the USSR and China erupted into a military conflict, and later China became a de facto US ally. Nevertheless, Beijing’s more independent policy since the late 1990s and early 2000s and the expansion of trade and economic ties helped bring the two countries closer together. It was on this basis that prerequisites arose for the final settlement of territorial disputes and border demarcation. That is why the proposals of the Japanese side to close the problem of the “northern territories” (on Tokyo’s terms) and the promises of subsequent explosive development of trade and economic relations do not find understanding in Russia.

Today Russia and Japan are dealing with the ongoing erosion of the international relations system, the growth of uncertainty and a decline in the overall level of security. Both countries are developing a strategic line of behaviour that should take into account large-scale changes in the international arena. Both Russia and Japan are forced, according to one participant in the discussion, to play simultaneously on two chessboards — western and eastern. The skill of the players, but also strategic empathy, determines the future of the region, whatever we call it Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific, and the whole world.

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