In what has become routine military posturing in the East China Sea, Japan scrambled F-15 fighter jets after 10 Chinese military aircraft skirted Japanese airspace near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands on Thursday. China's maritime provocations worry Japan, an island nation reliant on natural resource imports that must travel a potentially precarious path through waters patrolled by an increasingly assertive Chinese navy. As the political shackles on the Japanese military come off, the United States is encouraging a more active role for its principal Asian ally, and as Japan seeks out new investment opportunities in its near abroad, Tokyo will be focusing much of its attention on securing these southern sea-lanes. What remains to be seen is whether Tokyo can effectively manage distractions and exploit opportunities to its north to give the southern rim the attention it will demand.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is expected to visit Russia later this month as a special envoy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His mission is to try to iron out a resolution to Japan's long-standing grievance with Russia over the Russian-administered southern Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territories), which Russia occupied at the end of World War II.
In setting the stage for the negotiations, Mori proposed on a television program Wednesday a compromise in which three of the islands could be returned to Japan and one — Etorofu, the largest of the islands — could remain in Russian hands. Mori's proposal is the latest variation in on-and-off-again negotiations that have sputtered for decades between Moscow and Tokyo. Nationalist politics play a major role on both sides of this territorial dispute, and the geographic relevance of these islands only adds to the intractability of the negotiations. The islands form the gateway to the Sea of Okhotsk, which is crucial for Russia in securing access to the Pacific Ocean for its large submarine base, and crucial for Japan in securing its northern sea approach.
Though these negotiations will continue to face a number of hurdles (Japan's chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, already reaffirmed in contradiction to Mori's proposal that Japan will accept nothing less than the return of all four islands, though the dates of return are flexible), the array of geopolitical forces in the region is prodding Moscow and Tokyo to make an honest effort to etch out a creative solution to the conflict.
Russia and Japan's mutual mistrust is rooted in history, but Russia is not an imminent or active threat to Japan in the current geopolitical climate. In the economic sphere, the two have plenty of reasons to expand cooperation. This is especially true for Russian-Japanese energy relations: Japan is trying to reduce its vulnerabilities to the south inherent in importing mass amounts of energy from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, while Russia is attempting to expand its market share in the east as it faces increased competition in its European market.
Japan already imports oil and liquefied natural gas from Russia and has worked with it on energy development projects on Sakhalin, an island controlled by Russia but also claimed by Japan. Russia will invest tens of billions of dollars into East Siberian natural gas projects this year and expects that Japan will be its primary market. With a hefty energy import bill driving Japan's trade deficit, Tokyo is also looking to Russia as a cheaper and more proximate energy source. For this energy relationship to reach its potential, Russia and Japan will have to break the post-World War II mold that has hampered investment for nearly 70 years.
Russia and Japan also share a concern over China. While Japan is unnerved by Beijing's maritime ambitions, Russia is wary of China's rapidly expanding presence in Central Asia. China is headed for difficult years as it tries to balance its waning industrial coast with a politically volatile and underdeveloped interior. But even as China draws inward to deal with growing tensions at home, it will still have a massive need for natural resources and likely will be more assertive in trying to secure sea-lanes and resources in its near abroad.
China's likely moves mean Japan will be in high demand. While Russia is hoping an improved relationship with the archipelago will help manage its competition with China, the United States wants Japan to play a prominent role in the region to balance China and lessen the burden on the U.S. Navy. The Southeast Asian states lying in China's path are meanwhile looking toward Tokyo, even going so far as to call for a more active Japanese security role in the region, so that they can more effectively balance two assertive Asian powers and an easily distracted United States. Caught between a rising Japan and China, the Koreas may feel greater pressure to reunify, reintroducing a strategic complication on Japan's periphery.
Japan's neighborhood in the coming years will be demanding, to say the least. A more secure and politically settled northern front would theoretically facilitate Japan's ability to focus on bigger problems to its west and south. This sentiment may be what's fueling Mori's mandate to seek a compromise with Russia while Russian-Japanese geopolitical interests are largely aligned. The question now is whether the Kremlin is ready for a compromise.