For Japan, the dialogue with Russia in the two-plus-two format is a tool to carry out its goal of achieving greater independence in its foreign policy and moving away from complete subordination to the United States on all issues affecting its national security.
Two-plus-two consultations with the participation of the foreign ministers and defense ministers of the two countries took place in Tokyo not so long ago. Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu represented Russia, while Taro Kono and Takeshi Iwaya represented Japan. This format, created in November 2013, was designed to ensure that a security dialogue existed between the two countries. Following the events in Ukraine in 2014 these consultations were shelved and resumed only in March 2017. The most recent meeting was the fourth in a row.
In addition to Russia, Japan maintains two-plus-two format relations only with its main ally, the United States and the ideologically and politically like-minded Great Britain and Australia. Such a dialogue would appear to be indicative of Japan’s close political relations with a partner country. However, this rule does not apply to Russia as the two countries are clearly on the opposite sides of the barricade when it comes to international politics. Japan relies on its military-political alliance with the United States and believes that the bloc principle is indispensable for security architecture, whereas Russia insists on “indivisibility” of security, meaning that certain countries’ security shouldn’t be built at the expense of others. In this regard, it is notable that at the meeting Lavrov criticized the idea of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region with the participation of Japan, as it is used to create a closed partnership potentially directed against those countries that are not part of it.
As was expected, the exchange of opinions revealed the basic differences in opinion of the parties’ when it comes to security. Russia expressed concern about Tokyo’s plans to deploy Aegis Ashore anti-missile systems in two Japanese prefectures, a move that represents a “potential threat to Russia.” In response, Japanese Defense Minister Iwaya assured his Russian colleague that the system was designed exclusively to improve Japan’s defense and does not pose a threat to Russia's national security.
Russia’s military construction on the South Kuril Islands, to which Tokyo is making territorial claims, is another bone of contention. At the meeting, Japan stated that any type of military activity on the islands, including Russian military exercises or the deployment of the latest combat aircraft or anti-ship systems, is "unacceptable." In response, Lavrov said that this territory is under Russia’s sovereignty in accordance with international law and, therefore, Russia is in no way restricted in its actions there.
At the same time, it appears that the dispute during the talks was of a routine nature and the parties’ goal was in fact to outline at least some prospects for future discussions in the area of security, which has increasingly become the basis for developing bilateral relations.
Some Japanese media say that Japan needs the two-plus-two format in order to convince Russia that Japan has no plans to give the go-ahead for the deployment of US military facilities on the islands, if handed over to it, as part of a package solution to the territorial issue. As is already known, Moscow cites the absence of guarantees of non-deployment as an argument behind its intransigence at the talks on a peace treaty. However, it is not worthwhile to look at Tokyo’s motives only as a manifestation of a transactional approach that is based solely on pragmatic considerations.
For Japan, the dialogue with Russia in the two-plus-two format is a tool to carry out its goal of achieving greater independence in its foreign policy and moving away from complete subordination to the United States on all issues affecting its national security. Also important is the fact that in the run-up to the G20 summit in Osaka, where the leaders of the two countries are supposed to meet, Tokyo is interested in improving mutual trust with Moscow and a security dialogue is instrumental in this regard even though sheds light on the existing differences between the two sides. When facing a crisis such as the one that has been revealed during the dialogue for a peace treaty, the stepping up of contacts between the parties in other areas, especially in more sensitive spheres such as defense, objectively prevents the deterioration of bilateral relations, which would appear unavoidable following the collapse of any illusions regarding a prompt resolution of the border issue. For Abe, it is important to stave off an outright foreign policy failure in his dealings with Russia, which has become a real possibility in connection with the above crisis and in view of the upcoming elections to the upper house of parliament in July. Improving interaction with Russia on North Korea, which is a sensitive matter for Japan, as well as intensifying economic ties with Russia, including cooperation in developing oil and gas and other natural resources, would allow Abe to justify himself in the eyes of his conservative base and show off his foreign policy achievements.
An additional motive for Russia is its desire to prevent the West from further consolidating its position on the anti-Russian platform, using Japan as a “bridge” and an “agent of influence” in dialogue with Western countries. The United States and its allies are interested in security cooperation with Moscow in East Asia with its ever complex problems, and the Russia-Japan two-plus-two dialogue format could naturally help Russia establish contacts with a “collective West” not only on a bilateral level, but multilateral as well.
Amid this backdrop, the dialogue was productive as both sides demonstrated their common approaches and commitment to common ideas and values. The negotiators exchanged views on the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Even though the parties have different approaches (Russia advocates the gradual lifting of sanctions imposed on the DPRK, whereas Japan is for tightening them as much as possible), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated during a news conference that the Russian position is “very close” to the one adopted by Japan. Notably, the parties agreed to continue to cooperate in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Iran was also discussed during the talks. Russia gave a positive assessment of Japan’s efforts to build friendly relations with that country. Russia's moral support for Japan’s mediatory efforts in normalizing US-Iran relations and resolving the Iranian nuclear problem is important for Japan because it allows it to feel part of international politics as a full-fledged player rather than a junior partner of the United States, which dictates Japan’s position on all key issues of international agenda.
The decision to continue and expand contacts between the militaries of the two countries was symbolic. Russia-Japan Sarex-2019 exercises (Search and Rescue Exercises), which will focus on search and rescue operations at sea, will be held in Peter the Great Bay in mid-June. For the first time in 18 years a Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, will visit Japan in the second half of the year. Sergei Shoigu’s visit, the first such visit by a Defense Minister, brought him to the combat command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces’ ground forces in the Asaka garrison was quite symbolic. Thus, the meeting in Tokyo clearly showed that rumors about the imminent demise of Russia-Japan relations are exaggerated and that both sides feel the need to realize the potential of bilateral relations.