Whilst Russia’s relations with the US and Europe remain fraught, Russia’s relations with the three Far Eastern giants – China, Japan and South Korea – are moving rapidly from “very good” to “even better”.
Whilst US President Obama’s arrival at the G20 summit in Hangzhou in China was fraught with scandal, the Chinese have made clear they consider Russia’s President Putin to be the guest of honour. This is of course consistent with the reality of the Russian-Chinese alliance (or “grand strategic partnership”), which it is clear is becoming underpinned by increasingly friendly personal relations between Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping.
If Putin’s triumphant reception in Hangzhou was to some extent predictable, of possibly greater annoyance to Washington is the enthusiasm for better ties with Russia of the US’s two key Far Eastern allies, Japan and South Korea.
Both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye attended Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum in Russia’s Pacific port city of Vladivostok. Both had very friendly meetings with Putin during which they discussed the full range of their relations. Both spoke enthusiastically of the future of their countries’ relations with Russia.
There are practical reasons why the Japanese and South Korean leaders would see stronger relations with Russia.
Firstly there are the obvious economic benefits, with Russia possibly becoming an important future provider of energy and raw materials to these countries, and a possible market for their goods. Looking further ahead, with its highly educated and well-disciplined workforce, its considerable industrial base, its traditionally very strong scientific base, and its very low and very competitive cost structure, Russia is an obvious partner in future industrial projects.
Shinzo Abe at the Forum talked about all this in almost rhapsodic terms, floating once more the possibility of a Peace Treaty between Japan and Russia
“Let us make the Far East Russia region a base for exports to Asia and the Pacific region while raising productivity by moving forward with the diversification of Russian industries…..
Let us meet once a year in Vladivostok to confirm with each other the state of progress of these eight points….
I cannot help but say that it is an unnatural state of affairs that the important neighbours of Russia and Japan, which surely have unlimited potential, have to this day not yet concluded a peace treaty. Putting an end to the unnatural state of affairs that has continued these 70 years, shall we not together carve out a new era for Japan and Russia going forward?
Vladimir, in order to carve out towards the future bilateral relations overflowing with unlimited potential, I am resolved to putting forth all my strength to advance the relationship between Japan and Russia, together with you”.
The “eight points” Abe was referring to was an eight-point economic cooperation plan focused on development of Russia’s Far East region, which Abe presented to Putin at a summit meeting the two men held in May.
The Peace Treaty to which Abe was referring to is a vexed issue between Russia and Japan which has persisted since the 1950s.
As a result of the Second World War Russia gained control of a number of islands in the Kuril archipelago which are claimed by Japan. Japan has made a condition for a Peace Treaty between Russia and Japan – ending the state of hostility which has in theory existed between these two countries since the Second World War – the return of these islands to Japan. In the 1950s Russia (or to be more precise the USSR) offered to return the two southerly islands to Japan, an offer which Japan came close to accepting. However Japan eventually rejected the offer under US pressure, causing the dispute to continue ever since.
Russia has made it repeatedly clear that it is not prepared to return the islands to Japan in return for a Peace Treaty. In an interview with Bloomberg given shortly before the meeting with Abe Putin again made that clear
“We do not trade territories although concluding a peace treaty with Japan is certainly a key issue and we would like to find a solution to this problem together with our Japanese friends.”
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Putin undoubtedly knows that returning the islands to Japan is unacceptable to Russian public opinion. In 1992 Russia’s then President Yeltsin was forced to call off at the last moment a planned trip to Japan because of public outrage and fears that just a year after the USSR broke up he was preparing to hand the islands over to Japan. There is no evidence Russian popular feeling on this issue has moderated since then. In addition the islands are strategically important to Russia since they guard entry points to the Sea of Okhotsk, an assembly and patrol area of Russian strategic nuclear submarines that form part of Russia’s Pacific Fleet.
By contrast both Putin and Abe know that despite noisy demands for the islands from Japanese nationalists, Japanese public opinion has long since written off the islands and is no long much exercised by this issue.
Whilst it is unlikely that Abe will drop the demand for the islands, and he must know that Putin is not going to give them up, his floating of the idea of the Peace Treaty, and the negotiations to achieve it which he has now restarted, is probably his way of putting the islands issue to one side as he and Japan forge closer ties with Russia.
Importantly Abe did not merely discuss closer economic relations with Putin. He also sought stronger political and even military ties, apparently even agreeing exchanges between the two countries’ defence authorities and floating the idea – for the first time in their history – of joint drills by the two countries’ navies. The latter would be something of huge symbolic significance for both countries given that this would be the first major contact between their navies since the Battle of Tsushima – an iconic event in the modern histories of both countries.
More prosaically but more practically, Abe apparently also proposed more talks between his senior national security adviser, Shotaro Yachi, who heads the secretariat of Japan’s National Security Council, and Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s all-powerful Security Council.
Behind all the enthusiastic talk from Abe – and the equally enthusiastic talk from South Korean President Park Geun-hye – is the overwhelming reality of the rapid growth of Chinese power. With both Japan and South Korea having fraught relations with China, it makes sense for both countries to develop good relations with China’s great ally Russia in order to obtain through Russia some influence and capacity to restrain Beijing.
This is now becoming the increasing pattern across the whole Asia-Pacific region, with Russia seeking and accepting offers of good relations from an increasing number of countries falling under China’s shadow: India, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan.
The Russians for their part have shown great skill leveraging the advantage their undeclared alliance with China gives them to improve relations with these countries, including countries like South Korea and Japan that have never previously been their friends.
As for the Chinese, it is equally in their interest that a country close to them – Russia – should develop relations with countries that might otherwise all too easily simply become their enemies.
As for the US, as the farcical events surrounding Obama’s arrival at Hangzhou shows, it is increasingly being left out in the cold, looking on with frustration as Russia expands its links across Eastern Asia, and as its attempts to isolate Russia turn to dust.