Global Insights: Why Russia Is Challenging Japan Over Kurils

With the Russian government having assumed an increasingly aggressive posture regarding the country's territorial dispute with Japan in recent months, the question naturally arises, Why? Senior Russian leaders including President Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov have broken with precedent and visited what the Russians call the Southern Kurils and what the Japanese label their Northern Territories. The Russian government has also announced plans to enhance the islands' socio-economic development and defenses. The escalating crisis led the counselor for European Affairs at the Japanese Foreign Ministry to characterize the Russian-Japanese relationship last week as being at its lowest point in decades. A number of factors help explain Moscow's new course. To begin with, domestic political conditions in Russia and Japan create an environment favorable for confrontation. Since the mid-1990s, public opinion surveys have shown that Russian respondents have overwhelmingly opposed making any further major territorial concessions, whether it be to Japan or any other country. Russian leaders must therefore highlight their nationalist credentials as well as their unwillingness to make concessions regarding Russia's core national interests. Upcoming elections -- in 2011 for parliament and in 2012 for the presidency -- make it especially difficult for Russian politicians to make major concessions to Japan. Medvedev's political team is concerned that he lacks the hard-line credentials that make Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his coterie so popular. But with the president unwilling to sacrifice improving ties with the United States and NATO or Russia's important relationship with China at the nationalist altar, confronting Japan over the Kurils represents the safest alternative. Russian policymakers are also annoyed that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which is in power for the first time in its history, has not changed Tokyo's policy toward the islands, despite expectations that it would make more concessions than previous Japanese governments. From Moscow's perspective, a series of weak Japanese leaders have lacked the political support necessary to negotiate a compromise deal with Russia. The Japanese government's strained ties with other key countries may also explain Moscow's harder line. Russian officials have calculated that the Japanese government cannot respond strongly to Moscow's moves given its current strained relations with China and North Korea, and lingering tensions with South Korea and the U.S. The Russia-Japan territorial dispute escalated shortly after the Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Senkaku Islands -- referred to as the Diaoyu Islands in China -- became more acute. Ties between the Koreas and Tokyo also remain tense. North Koreans have sought on several occasions to exclude Japan from the Six-Party Talks, while the Japanese government adamantly demands that Pyongyang provide more information about Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents during the Cold War. Different territorial disagreements and a lengthy bill of historical grievances also impede cooperation between Japan and South Korea. U.S.-Japan defense ties have also only recently recovered from the year-long struggle with the DPJ over the relocation of the Futenma air base in Okinawa. Although the Obama administration has backed Tokyo's position in its island dispute with Russia, the administration is not eager to confront Russia in East Asia over the islands. Moscow's help is needed to manage North Korea's provocations, and many in Washington see Russia as a possible partner in influencing China's rise in peaceful and mutually beneficial directions. Another likely explanation for Moscow's growing assertiveness regarding the islands is that Russia is succeeding in raising its profile in East Asia more generally, even without resolving its dispute with Japan. China, which has now replaced Germany as Russia's top trading partner, is expected to become a leading purchaser of Russian energy. Economic relations between Russia and South Korea have also improved considerably. The Russian government has also sought to further establish its Pacific presence, by hosting the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok, for instance. The drive to improve conditions on the disputed islands, as in the rest of the Russian Far East, might also be seen as an effort to project a vision of modernity and sophistication to fellow Asian nations. Finally, the Japanese themselves have become increasingly open to expanding economic ties with Russia despite the territorial dispute, removing another possible incentive for Moscow to make major concessions. Russian officials have concluded, correctly, that they can challenge Japan aggressively regarding the islands and still secure considerable Japanese investment and commerce. This pattern has been evident even during the last few months. Despite protesting Medvedev's trip to Kunashir, Japanese officials stressed that they still wanted Medvedev to attend the November APEC summit in Yokohama. At that meeting, both leaders agreed to set the territorial controversy aside and focus on developing their economic relations. On Feb. 11, with Japanese Foreign Minister Seji Maehara standing beside him in Moscow, Lavrov said that Russia would welcome foreign investors from China and South Korea as well as Japan to help develop the islands. The Japanese have always refused Russian offers to participate in the islands' joint development out of concern that it would reinforce Russian sovereignty claims. Japanese officials responded to Lavrov's implicit threat by telling third countries not to accept the offer, but they also adjusted their own position, saying they would henceforth consider joint economic activities on the islands provided they clearly would not affect Tokyo's sovereignty claims. At their meeting, Maehara and Lavrov also agreed that their two governments would support various specific business projects in both countries, bring into force their bilateral nuclear energy agreement, and take other steps to promote mutual trade and investment. All these factors make it more difficult to achieve a near-term territorial settlement between Russia and Japan, since they create conditions unfavorable for either country to make the major concessions required for a breakthrough on the territorial issue. In the long term, one would expect the Japanese to make the most concessions, since China's continuing rise presents a greater threat to Tokyo's interests. In addition, the past few months have seen Russia succeed in implementing several steps that will further solidify Moscow's hold over the islands. The next Japanese coalition government, or perhaps the next generation of Japanese political leaders, may prove more open to pursuing the kind of realpolitik required to yield to Moscow on the islands issue. The resulting improvement in Russian-Japanese relations would allow the Japanese to concentrate their efforts on matching China's growing economic and military power, while possibly also inducing the Chinese to moderate their policies toward Japan. In addition, better ties between Moscow and Tokyo might prove to be the catalyst for a long-anticipated geopolitical realignment that sees Russia adopt a more guarded approach to the China's rise by strengthening ties with China's neighbors, including Japan. This repositioning would help manage the potentially disruptive consequences that could result from the emergence of a new superpower along Russia's eastern borders. Until such a softening occurs on the Japanese side, however, Russia has little incentive to change its approach to the island dispute, and many reasons to maintain its tougher stance. Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday. Photo: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and President of the Republic of Korea Lee Myung-bak, Seoul, Korea, Nov. 10, 2010 ((Photo by the Web site of the Russian Presidency).

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