In the Pacific Theater, a Cold War Sequel

4 MINS READSep 9, 2017 | 00:21 GMT
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) share a laugh at the headquarters of worldwide judo community, the Kodokan Judo Institute, on Dec. 16, 2016.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) share a laugh at the headquarters of the worldwide judo community, the Kodokan Judo Institute. Reportedly, better relations between Russia and Japan was the deathbed wish of Abe's father, former Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe. 

(TORU YAMANAKA/Getty Images)

As the spotlight shines on the Asia-Pacific theater, Japan is putting aside one of its longest running disputes to revisit its relationship with Russia. For the past 70 years, the Kuril Islands have been a cornerstone of talks between Tokyo and Moscow, and a stumbling block to reconciliation. Russia's humiliating defeat in its 1904-05 war with Japan cost Moscow half the resource-rich Sakhalin Island, as well as the still-disputed Southern Kuril Islands. The territorial loss corked the Russian navy in the Sea of Japan, limiting the fleet's access to the greater Pacific Ocean. After World War II, the Soviets took back not only Sakhalin, but also the Northern Kuril Islands. After more than a century of rivalry, the two nations have been repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to reconcile. Even now, the territorial dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from declaring a formal end to their World War II conflict.

A map showing the disputed Kuril islands

Deeper divisions have also set in over the decades. Japan became an integral part of the U.S. alliance structure during the Cold War, checking the Soviet Union's eastern-facing ambitions. As the Soviet Union began to dissolve, former Japanese foreign minister Shintaro Abe reportedly told his son, current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that a Russo-Japanese rapprochement was his dying wish. However, only nominal trade and poor relations followed the Soviet Union's collapse, despite dozens of proposals drawn up by Russia and Japan to find a settlement for both peace and the Kuril Islands in the 1990s. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin drew up a version of such plans, but when the Japanese negotiating team made it clear no Japanese firms would do business in Russia, Yeltsin ended talks by locking his peace proposals in his briefcase.

When Abe came to power in 2012, he brought fresh momentum to talks with Russia, taking steps toward a warmer relationship. Moscow and Tokyo began to explore improved energy ties, Japanese investments in Russia and proposals to incrementally return disputed islands to Japanese control. Both sides were on the verge of signing a comprehensive peace deal when Russian relations with the west soured following the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Washington pressured Tokyo into signing on to sanctions against Russia, and progress on a peace deal was halted. In 2016, Japan began a renewed push for progress on the Kurils with a landmark December meeting. However, Russia has since dug in its heels on the issue. Ceding the Kuril Islands would weaken Russian territorial integrity, something that is of particular importance since Crimea's annexation.

Troubles on the Korean Peninsula have only pushed Beijing and Moscow closer together, and Tokyo has taken notice.

But while Tokyo and Moscow make minor progress in their continued negotiations over the disputed Kurils, larger issues are now taking precedence over the historic disputes. Troubles on the Korean Peninsula have only pushed Beijing and Moscow closer together, and Tokyo has taken notice. Russia and China have marched in lockstep regarding North Korea, leading to a greater alignment against American behavior in the region. For decades, the United States and its allies — including Japan and South Korea — have lived in fear of an alignment between Russia and China. Now, it appears that Russia and China's strategic goals have converged. 

Beijing and Moscow are attempting to promote an alternative version of global order by questioning Washington's hegemony, countering U.S. plans for North Korea and promoting alternative economic and security platforms. Both Russia and China oppose plans to place defensive U.S. missiles in South Korea, as well as any plans for a military intervention in North Korea. Like the United States, Japan is frustrated by Russian cooperation with China on blocking substantive sanctions against North Korea. Trade between Russia and China is also growing at a breakneck pace, along with energy and investment ties. The two countries are even coordinating in theaters they have traditionally competed in, such as Central Asia.

Because of these developments, Abe's visit to Vladivistok for Russia's Far Eastern Economic Forum has been full of warmth and friendliness. Abe proposed a judo match between Putin and his Mongolian counterpart, Haltmaagiin Battulga, and the leaders created a time capsule filled with their dreams for the future. Putin and Abe disagreed on the steps necessary to contain the North Korean nuclear crisis, with Russia firmly opposed to substantive sanctions, pushing for dialogue instead. Such tensions were balanced by the signing of economic deals. Putin even suggested the building of a land bridge between Sakhalin and the Japanese island of Hokkaido, a move that would at least partially solve their territorial disputes. For now, the historic disputes between Russia and Japan have been pushed to the backburner as Tokyo attempts to ease tensions with Russia in an effort to focus on China and North Korea. 

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