Japan and Russia: Common Interests Drive Them Together

There have been so many false starts in Russia-Japan relations that it is understandable that last week’s visit of Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to Moscow attracted little international attention. He was there in part to prepare the way not for the post-1945 peace treaty which the two countries have yet to sign, but merely as part of preparations for Japan’s hosting in July of the G8 Summit.

Nonetheless, add this visit to a few other small but significant news items and one can see signs of a shift in attitudes on both sides. These stem not so much from positive decisions to reject the sense of rivalry for power in northeast Asia that began almost 150 years ago when post-Meiji Restoration Japan sought to counter Russian imperial designs on Manchuria and Korea. It is more that Russia, recovering from the humiliations of the Soviet collapse, again sees itself playing a significant role in Asia and has a common interest with Japan in balancing the rapid growth of Chinese power at a time when US power is seen to be in slow decline.

Japan has yet to show any sign of softening its stand on the main issue of contention with Russia – the four Kurile Islands occupied by Russia in 1945. In the past, Russia has offered to return two of them but even in the post-Cold war environment Japan has not budged, reflecting the inability of its weak leadership to shrug off nationalistic popular sentiment. However, after the talks President Putin said that the two were moving “in the right direction” on the issue.

In reality other issues now matter more, so it may well be possible for the islands to be set to one side and relations focused on developing mutual interests. The most obvious is trade. Japan was late to see the potential of the Russian market but it is now booming, helped both by Japan’s proximity to the Russian far east, and the rail heads at Nakhodka and Vladivostok and by investment such as Toyota’s successful foray into the Russian car market.

After a long struggle for influence, Japan finally prevailed upon Russia to build a pipeline from its eastern Siberia oil fields to Nakhodka rather than Daqing in China – though a spur to China may yet be built. This pipeline will not be completed until about 2015 but part should be ready in 2009, permitting rail shipments the rest of the way to the Pacific coast.

Meanwhile oil and gas development on Sakhalin depend in part on the nearby Japanese market.

Hydrocarbon and pipeline development almost everywhere in Russia has been delayed by battles for control of resources within Russia and by the more nationalistic stance of Russia in the wake of energy price escalation. But Russia is aware that for commercial as well as strategic reasons it needs to foster the Japan and Korean markets, indeed the Pacific generally, to increase its bargaining power with Europe, and to reduce China’s ability to play off Kazakhstan against it.

Small but significant signs of a coming together of commercial and strategic interests are also found in the nuclear power sector. Toshiba, which now controls Westinghouse, recently signed an alliance with Atomenergoprom, to produce a stable supply of nuclear fuel enriching Kazakh uranium and cooperating on power station development. With Russia as well as many other countries set to build more nuclear power stations, and access to enriched uranium likely to become a global issue, this deal could turn out to be very important.

On the strategic arms front, Russia may not much like Japan’s participation in the US missile defense shield but it does acknowledge that this is aimed at potential enemies other than Russia. At the same time, with less need of money and worried about China’s growing power, Russia is showing decreased willingness to sell sophisticated arms and technology to China. Moscow may not be happy with Japan’s often hard-line stance on North Korea but Japan does recognize that a more active Russia does have an important role to play, if only in providing some potential balance to China’s influence on Pyongyang.

Despite occasional spats over air space and shipping rights, Russia-Japan relations on the ground have been cordial and marked by quite frequent low-level official exchanges. Russia needs to balance its relations with China through, for example, participation in the six-member security-oriented Shanghai Cooperation Organization with attention to other Asian countries including India, Vietnam and Indonesia. But strategically Japan is the most important of these in maintaining balance-of-power peace in a complex northeast Asia and giving outside interests a vital interest in defending Russia’s resource-rich but sparsely populated eastern provinces from potential predators.