Expectations high for Japan-Russia parley

'Two-plus-two' meeting ripe for a deal as China flexes muscles

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Sharing a growing concern over China’s military buildup, Japan and Russia are set to deepen bilateral ties by holding their first so-called two-plus-two meeting of foreign and defense ministers Saturday in Tokyo.

The four ministers are expected to discuss ways to broaden security cooperation and deepen mutual trust amid the changing security landscape in Asia. Japan hopes as well for a breakthrough in the territorial stalemate over four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, a dispute that has prevented the signing of a peace treaty for the past 68 years.

Russia, which shares a border more than 4,000 km long with China, is the more eager for the talks due to its increasing uneasiness about China’s military buildup, pundits say.

Compared with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who paid scant attention to Japan and visited Kunashiri Island — one of the four in dispute — in November 2010, sparking criticism from Tokyo, President Vladimir Putin values better security ties with Japan, experts said.

Shinji Hyodo, head of the America, Europe and Russia division at the National Institute for Defense Studies, said that after Putin became president in May last year, Russia began asking Japan to cooperate on security, repeatedly broaching the subject at foreign ministerial meetings.

In Tokyo in October last year, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev directly asked then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for cooperation, Hyodo said.

After such repeated appeals, at a summit in April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Putin agreed to set up the two-plus-two meeting.

Though Russia hasn’t admitted it, concern about China’s growing military presence is behind its eagerness to talk, Hyodo said.

Russia’s political relationship with China is amicable but it’s a different story when it comes to military matters, he explained.

Russia wants better ties with countries that have distanced themselves from China, such as the U.S., Japan, India and Vietnam, to counterbalance Beijing’s growing ambitions, he said.

China’s military muscle-flexing has been on display recently. On July 14, Chinese naval ships entered the Sea of Okhotsk for the first time through the Soya Strait, shocking Russia.

Toshiyuki Shikata, a Teikyo University professor and former commanding general of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Northern Army, said the sea is a Russian “sanctuary” the U.S. and Japan refrain from entering.

“Russia places two or three nuclear submarines in the Okhotsk Sea. . . . It’s like the last line of defense for Russia,” Shikata said.

China has also been taking a greater interest in the Arctic Ocean. Melting ice due to global warming is raising hopes of a new northern sea route that avoids the Suez Canal to greatly reduce shipping times to Europe.

Russia is worried Chinese military vessels will encroach on the Arctic Ocean, which Russia considers its inland sea, Shikata said.

In this environment, Russia will continue to place importance on its ties with Japan for some time, the experts said.

However, Russia won’t easily, if ever, accede to Japan’s long-standing demand that all the four disputed islands off Hokkaido be returned at the same time, the experts said.

But now with further leverage to add to economic and resource-development cooperation, Japan has a chance to convince Russia it would be in its interest to resolve the territorial dispute in exchange for heightened security, Hyodo said.

Russia is now the third country — after the U.S. and Australia — to join Japan in a two-plus-two framework.