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Russia & Japan in a Historical Political and Strategic Reachout

Paper No. 5591                                            Dated 4-Nov-2013

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

Russia and Japan in a historical political and strategic reach-out held their 2+2 meeting in Tokyo of their respective Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers on November 2, 2013, not only to discuss political issues but also a strategic dialogue to enhance defence and security cooperation.

Russia’s political and security reach-out to Japan, as the senior and most powerful nation in North West Pacific can be read asadding substantive contours to its Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific. My two previous Papers on this aspect analysed the perspectives.

Japan’s political and security reach-out to Russia needs to be viewed as a continuation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s on-going initiatives to broad- base and widen Japan’s political and security relationships to offset its security concerns relating to China and North Korea.

Significantly in the run-up to the Russian- Japanese 2+2 Meeting in Tokyo, the Japanese Prime Minister has had four meetings with Russian President Putin in the last six months. Russia and Japan seem to have embarked on a process that may in its fruition generate changes in the Asia Pacific power-balance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov remarked that “ I believe this event indicates new stage in the relationship between Russia and Japan”. Further he added that Russian- Japanese cooperation will “promote trustful relationships in the Asia Pacific region.

Strategic trust between Russia and Japan is assessed that it could improve Russia’s image and standing with the rest of Asia Pacific nations strategically concerned with China’s not so benign military rise.

Major Highlights of Russia-China 2+2 Meeting in Tokyo

In the first ever meeting jointly attended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, international security, bilateral relations and plans to hold joint Russian-Japanese naval exercises were discussed. Japan has earlier carried out joint naval exercises with Russia, but these were limited to search and rescue exercises. New joint naval exercises would be focused on terrorism and anti-piracy operations. Russia and Japan will also cooperate in cyber-security operations.

It was further decided that Russia and Japan will hold regular meetings of their Defence Ministers and also send military observers to each other’s military exercises..

During the discussions Japan made it clear that the United States would continue to be the lynch-pin of Japanese security.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov assured that the format of 2+2 Meetings would not impinge on Japan’s relations with the United States or any other third party.  Both sides stressed that upgrading defence ties between both the nations will serve the national interests of Russia and Japan.

On the contentious issue of the Northern Islands territorial disputes between Japan and Russia, both sides agreed to commence separate negotiations in 2014. Both sides can be expected to proceed on this issue without emotionalism and rigidity, in the context of their respective national security interests and contextual geo-politics.  China’s Reactions to the Russia-Japan 2+2 Meeting in Tokyo China should be naturally concerned at any growing proximity of Russia to Japan but made no efforts to display it through any public official comments.


However, The Global Times, the official organ, offered the following comments attributed to Chinese researchers on Russia:

  • Common interests between China and Russia outweigh those between Russia and Japan.
  • Do not think Russia is cutting China by holding this Meeting but it is a major aim of Japan to counterbalance China’s influence.
  • Japan possibly trying to drive a wedge between Russia and China.

Finally, the Chinese commentary observed that China should pay close attention to new mechanisms but not to over-interpret them.

Concluding Observations

At the International Conference held in Moscow last month on the South China Sea Disputes, while presenting perspectives on Russia’s Strategic Dilemma in the Asia Pacific, I had stressed, that if Russia aimed for greater political and strategic acceptability in the Asia Pacific to emerge as an independent power centre, then Russia would have to divest the ‘China Factor’ primacy from its policy formulations.

Russia’s political and strategic reach-out this last week-end may be one small step in that direction and could presage exciting developments to follow. If nothing else it would be one more contributory factor towards greater security and stability in the Asia Pacific.

Russia’s political and strategic reach-out to Japan seems to have been widely welcomed in the Asia Pacific, with the exception of China. Russia’s further moves in this direction would be under close scrutiny.