The “China Factor” in Japan-Russia Relations
On April 29 this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Moscow for the first state visit to Russia by a Japanese prime minister in 10 years. The basic goals of the Kremlin’s new diplomatic offensive are threefold: (1) to negotiate a peace treaty, which means first resolving the territorial dispute over the islands off the coast of Hokkaido known as the Northern Territories; (2) to step up diplomatic and security cooperation in response to China’s growing clout; and (3) to boost energy cooperation with a view to meeting Japan’s increased demand for natural gas and other resources in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.
In respect to the Northern Territories, the summit yielded little beyond an agreement to kick-start the stalled negotiating process. Of course, prospects for a resolution of the dispute could improve significantly if Putin is truly open to the idea of ceding half of the disputed territory by area, an option he is reported to have broached during the talks.  But this is a subject for a separate article.
Nor did the talks produce any significant breakthrough in the field of energy cooperation. With Japan’s Resource and Energy Agency placing top priority on lowering the cost of gas imports, executives from Russian energy giants like Rosneft, Novatek, and Gazprom had been visiting Japan since early this year to drum up interest in a number of new projects for joint construction of liquefied natural gas plants in Russia. But as none of these potential deals had progressed to the stage of price negotiation, Abe and Putin were unable to announce any major new developments.
The one substantive outcome of the summit was an agreement to bring both countries’ foreign and defense ministers together for a “two plus two” security dialogue. Japan is currently engaged in such dialogue with just two countries, the United States and Australia. Russia’s debut as Japan’s third two-plus-two partner is a surprising development. It testifies to a major push toward bilateral security cooperation since Russian Security Council Chief Nikolai Patrushev’s visit to Japan last October, reflecting both governments’ concerns over China’s growing power.
Acknowledgement of the “Chinese Threat”
On April 15, just two weeks before Abe’s visit to Moscow, a fascinating piece titled “The Sum Total of All Fears: The Chinese Threat Factor in Russian Politics” appeared in Russia in Global Affairs , Russia’s leading journal of foreign affairs and international relations.  The author of the article is Vassily Kashin, an expert on China and military affairs with whom I have been in communication for the past 10 years. Kashin, a senior research fellow at the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, offers insights into Russian security policy that help explain Moscow’s keen interest in a two-plus-two dialogue with Japan.
Kashin states near the outset of his piece that “the topic of possible threats from China is a taboo for Russian officials participating in public discussions.” While acknowledging that “all precautions taken by Russia are associated not with a direct but potential threat to its interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity that may come from China,” he makes the case that “the Chinese threat, however hypothetical, is one of the key factors underlying Russia’s foreign and defense policies.” His argument rests largely on the following points:
- Each year Russia carries out large-scale military exercises to practice redeployment of troops from European Russia to the Russian Far East, a key scenario in the military’s war games.
- In 2010, Russia combined the Pacific Fleet and the Far Eastern and Siberian Military Districts into the Unified Strategic Command “Vostok,” also known as the Eastern Military District. It is the largest unit within the nation’s armed forces and is directly responsible for defending the Russian border with China.
- An analysis of new weapons supplied to the Russian army reveals that a large share is directed to the Eastern Military District.
- Most of the press statements on espionage issued by the Federal Security Service (FSB) relate to China.
- Russia clearly restricts Chinese investment in strategic sectors of the national economy.
Probably because Moscow’s official position on such matters tends to influence writing at the academic level, full frontal analyses of Russian foreign and security policy from the perspective of a Chinese threat have been virtually absent in major Russian journals (as opposed to its unofficial government reports) in recent years. The appearance of such a comprehensive piece as Kashin’s in a publication like Russia in Global Affairs would suggest that the taboo on serious discussions of the Chinese threat is gradually lifting.
Russia, China, and the INF Treaty
One particularly noteworthy feature of Kashin’s piece is his frank discussion of the role of tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear submarines in a hypothetical conflict with China. Noting that Russia’s defense capability vis-à-vis China is built primarily on nuclear arms, including tactical weapons, Kashin suggests that the China factor accounts for many of Moscow’s recent decisions and statements concerning strategic arms limitation and reduction.
He notes that Russia declines to discuss any further cuts in strategic nuclear weapons with the United States unless the other nuclear powers join in. It refuses to disclose the composition of its tactical nuclear forces and, far from showing any inclination to reduce those weapons, it continues to invest vast sums in their development. (Tactical nuclear weapons are considered more useful for defending against nearby China than strategic nuclear weapons, with their longer range.) Kashin states with confidence that it was the China factor that motivated former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s to suggest that Russia might withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The last assertion requires some explanation. In January 2005, then Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov visited Washington and met with then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. According to a March 10, 2005, article in the business daily Vedomosti , when Ivanov asked Rumsfeld what the United States would do if Russia were to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Rumsfeld raised no objections. This is undoubtedly the episode to which Kashin is referring.
Several years ago, I asked a top US defense official who worked under Rumsfeld at the time whether he could verify that story. He told me it was true. As he explained it, Russia and the United States had a mutual understanding regarding the threat from the “south,” meaning Iran, Pakistan, and China—another confirmation of Kashin’s theory.
Kamchatka Submarine Base
With regard to Russia’s submarine capability, Kashin makes the following points.
- In a hypothetical military clash with China, Russia’s only nonnuclear trump card is its Pacific Fleet. The technical superiority of Russia’s nuclear-powered submarines and China’s growing dependence on maritime trade would make it theoretically possible for Russia to inflict severe economic damage on China. This would not halt a Chinese advance in the Far East in the event of an actual conflict with Russia, but the potential costs to China could act as a deterrent.
- Since 2004, Russia has been actively renovating and upgrading the nuclear submarine base in Vilyuchinsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula—this after the Russian General Staff proposed closing it in 2003 for lack of funding. Development of the base, where most of Russia’s new Project 955 Borei -class and Project 885 Yasen -class nuclear submarines are to be stationed, is under the direct supervision of Putin, who has traveled there several times to inspect progress.
One possible focus of all this activity is the Arctic Ocean. As the polar icecaps continue to recede under the impact of global warming, the thaw is expected to open up the Arctic Ocean for resource exploration and new shipping routes between Asia and Europe, and many are eager to stake their claims. Between July and September 2012, the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon passed through the Soya Strait (La Pérouse Strait) and the Sea of Okhostk to cross the Arctic Ocean and back, a feat that did not sit well with Moscow by most accounts. The Sea of Okhostk is a military bastion for Russia, where the Pacific Fleet’s nuclear submarines are deployed in a state of combat readiness. As long as Russia controls the islands stretching from the Kamchatka Peninsula to Hokkaido, including Kunashiri (Russian: Kunashir) and Etorofu (R: Iturup) in the Northern Territories, ships entering the Sea of Okhostk from the Pacific face great difficulties.  But if China henceforth continues to employ the route taken by the Snow Dragon , dramatic changes in the strategic environment around the Sea of Okhostk could result.
The Northern Territories’ Strategic Significance
Russia’s expansion of the nuclear submarine base on the Kamchatka Peninsula could also have a direct and indirect impact on the territorial dispute with Japan. As noted above, Russia regards the Sea of Okhostk as a military bastion. It so happens that the preferred route from the Sea of Okhostk to the Pacific and vice versa is the channel between the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu, which is deepest in the chain of islands from the Kamchatka Peninsula to Hokkaido and remains ice-free year round. Such military factors help explain Russia’s insistence that resolution of the Northern Territories dispute center on the return of just Shikotan and the Habomai islets.
On April 25, the Sankei Shimbun , citing a well-placed anonymous source, reported that Abe and Putin were planning to use the upcoming summit to “conclude an agreement on maritime security cooperation between the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Russian navy, to include joint search and rescue operations in the Arctic Ocean.” No such announcement was actually made, although an agreement to launch a two-plus-two dialogue did emerge from the summit. It is not known whether the information conveyed to the Sankei originated on the Japanese or the Russian side, but the leak is highly suggestive, particularly in view of the new strategic significance of the Northern Territories.
As Kashin explains it, “Since the long-term future of China remains unclear, Russia cannot rule out a situation where the Chinese threat will turn from a hypothetical into a real one. Therefore Russia is interested in having effective channels of communication and cooperation with the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific Region, which could be stepped up whenever necessary.”
Dmitry Mosyakov, one of a small group of Russian experts in Southeast Asian affairs, has asserted that the Russian Pacific Fleet’s unprecedented participation in RIMPAC 2012—the massive war games hosted by the US Pacific Fleet—came about largely because of deteriorating relations between Russia and China.  I also had the opportunity to speak with a different Russian ASEAN expert regarding a recent Russia-China “track two” meeting, where, he noted, “the Chinese took a very imperious tone with the Russians, sermonizing about economic development and other topics. It got to the point where one of them declared that Russia’s sale of submarines to Vietnam was ‘outrageous.’ I'm sure the Kremlin is very displeased with this attitude on China’s part.”
Given this background, it seems safe to regard Moscow’s pursuit of two-plus-two dialogue with Japan as an integral part of a larger effort to establish “effective channels of communication and cooperation with the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific Region,” in the event that the hypothetical threat from China turns into a real one. We can thus expect Moscow to approach maritime security, including shipping routes spanning the Sea of Japan and the Arctic Ocean, as a major theme in the development of bilateral cooperation with Japan henceforth.
This also raises the possibility that the Northern Territories dispute will begin to take on a different character, given the islands’ new strategic significance. With this in mind, government and private bodies alike should seize the moment and begin building a multi-tiered bilateral framework for strategic dialogue oriented to medium- and long-term concerns.
1. Nihon Keizai Shimbun , May 1, 2013.
2. Vassily Kashin, “The Sum Total of All Fears: The Chinese Threat Factor in Russian Politics,” Russia in Global Affairs , April 15, 2013. http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/The-Sum-Total-of-All-Fears-15935 (English).
3. “Rossiya voorydzaet kurili radi podvodnix lodok,” Izvestia , October 13, 2011.