Just 160 km from the northern tip of Hokkaido, Sakhalin is a desolate island that has long been ignored by world powers. Remnants of Japanese shrines are reminders that the island was governed by Imperial Japan until the end of World War II.
Now this lonely island, with huge reserves of oil and natural gas, is emerging as a strategic connection between Cold War-era foes Japan and Russia, making them close partners and even potential allies, with their leaders having met four times last year and discussed increased Russian energy exports to Japan.
“Although most Japanese don’t know it, Russia can rescue Japan from its energy quagmire. Russia has huge resources and her oil and gas prospects in Sakhalin and other parts of eastern Russia are geographically close to Japan,” said Kazuhiko Fuji, chief research fellow at the Institute for International Policy Studies.
Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster started on March 11, 2011, Japan has been increasing its oil and gas imports to make up for energy losses spawned by the shutdown of all its nuclear power stations.
Russia has its own motives for boosting natural gas exports to Japan. Despite having the largest gas reserves in the world, the country is in danger of losing markets in Europe and Asia. Shale gas produced in North America is sold internationally at a lower price, squeezing out Russian gas.
At an economic conference in St. Petersburg in June 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke passionately in a keynote speech. “We see an opportunity in Asia, where gas consumption will double in a decade,” he said.
Last May, members of the Diet formed a caucus to push for a gas pipeline connecting Sakhalin and Hokkaido. Fuji said the pipeline would bring the two countries closer and facilitate a Japanese-Russian energy alliance.
Although such an alliance is still regarded by many as a fanciful notion, the two countries have unexpectedly and dramatically improved ties, including in the security area.
Foreign and defense ministers from the two sides held their first so-called two-plus-two meeting in late October in Tokyo and reached agreement on expanding joint military exercises, cooperating in disaster relief, and countering cyberattacks, among other topics.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida remarked that the once-unimaginable meeting “has opened a new page in Japanese-Russian cooperation in security and defense.”
The talks marked a major milestone as Japan and Russia are locked in a territorial spat over four islands off Hokkaido that has prevented them from signing a post-World War II peace treaty. The Japanese also had strong anti-Soviet sentiments during the Cold War era.
A senior official at the Defense Ministry disclosed that one of Tokyo’s purposes at the meeting was to counter Chinese military advances toward the east and north, concerns certainly shared by Russia.
“Immediately following his inauguration as prime minister in December 2012, (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe ordered us to prepare for the two-plus-two meeting as one of the main goals of foreign policy,” the official said.
Tokyo also seeks to make progress in negotiations to resolve its territorial dispute with Russia. Japan also has island rows with China and South Korea.
“Abe wants to resolve at least one of the three issues, and the one with Russia is the easiest,” a Japanese expert said.
With the initial success of his aggressive economic policy, the prime minister has also been bold in foreign policy. He is eyeing more tangible achievements with Russia when Japan holds the next two-plus-two talks with Russia in Moscow in 2014.
“I intend to make progress in the negotiations for a peace treaty, while Japan-Russia cooperation moves forward in a variety of areas, such as the economy, exchange programs and security,” Abe said after the first two-plus-two meeting. Putin has also admitted “there is an excellent sense of chemistry between the two leaders.”
Japan’s active approach to Russia has already generated slight concern among U.S. foreign policy experts. The United States has had two-plus-two meetings with Japan for years, and American policymakers tend to believe that only the United States — Japan’s ally and security guarantor — can be a genuine partner.
A Japanologist in Washington warns that U.S. President Barack Obama may grow irritated by a closer bond between Abe and Putin.
“Obama doesn’t have smooth relationships with Abe or Putin, and may feel uncomfortable,” he said.
It may be premature to say what this new partnership between Japan and Russia will achieve in East Asia and the wider world.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes Moscow-Tokyo relations should be similar to Moscow-Berlin ties, which do not undermine any alliance and provide solutions to common problems.
Trenin also advised Japan to pursue strategic goals rather than short-term gains from Russia.
A possible copiloting of global affairs by the U.S. superpower and the rising power of China in a so-called Group of Two arrangement would be “a nightmare for both Japan and Russia. New multipolarity with Russia and Japan playing independent roles is certainly in our interest,” he said.