National / Politics | FOCUS

Japan-Russia security talks seen symbolic, may only benefit Moscow

by Junko Horiuchi

Kyodo

Japan and Russia resumed on Monday a ministerial security dialogue for the first time in over three years. But the talks are seen as a symbolic development rather than substantial, and may have only served Moscow’s interest in showing its improved ties with a Group of Seven country.

Russia remains wary of U.S. missile defense abilities in the Asia-Pacific, while Japan is in a position to strengthen ties with Washington to counter North Korea’s growing nuclear missile threat.

As a key security ally of the United States, Japan needs to convince Washington if it wants to take steps on any security cooperation with Moscow, analysts said. U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy toward Russia remains unclear, but he has signaled a willingness to work toward a better relationship.

And while Japan sees the convening of the “two-plus-two” talks between the countries’ foreign and defense ministers as a way to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, which have been strengthening ties after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, Russia seems reluctant to hurt its special partnership with China, a dominant investment partner.

In the talks on Monday, Tokyo conveyed its concerns about China’s rising maritime assertiveness but apparently to little effect. Russia made no comment about China in the talks, a Japanese official who participated said.

Japan is concerned about the expansionary moves by the Chinese military in the disputed South China Sea, as well as near the Tokyo-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which Beijing claims and calls Diaoyu.

The dialogue is a part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s accelerated efforts to engage with Russia, with the hope of making progress on a stalled dispute over Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands off Hokkaido. The row has prevented the two countries from a signing post-World War II peace treaty.

James Brown, an associate professor at Temple University in Japan, said the talks are not likely to make significant progress in security cooperation or the isle row.

“They can smooth over their differences but they can’t actually resolve them because ultimately Japan’s relationship with the United States is much much more important than Russia. And for Russia, its relationship with China is much more important,” Brown said. “The best that Japan can hope for is dissuade Russia from coordinating activities with China,” he said.

Due to domestic politics, Trump may be forced to take a harder line on Russia, which would force Japan to change its position as well, analysts said.

Trump has previously expressed admiration for Putin and hinted at a readiness to improve ties with Russia, which deteriorated under predecessor Barack Obama. But he now faces mounting questions about contacts between his associates and the Kremlin during the presidential campaign.

“It is true that Mr. Trump is very unique. But he is still the president … who is believed to be more hawkish on Russia,” said Dmitry Streltsov, a professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “It is unlikely that Mr. Trump will antagonize the (Republican) party he belongs to.”

Streltsov added that Japan’s relationship with Russia will be strongly influenced by Moscow’s ties with Washington.

Some analysts said Japan waited to resume the security talks with Russia until the end of the Obama administration. Obama had warned Abe a number of times about becoming too close to Russia.

Ahead of Abe’s trip to the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi last May, Obama urged Abe to forgo his trip, citing Russia’s differences with the United States over the handling of the Ukrainian and Syrian issues, sources said.

Japan also needs to make sure closer engagements with Russia in security matters do not send the wrong signal to G-7 countries, which are becoming more wary of Russia’s expansion of its military power, analysts said.

For Russia, even if the security dialogue does not bring tangible outcomes, convening a framework is beneficial as it can prove that Western countries are not united in taking a hard line against it.

After the annexation of Crimea, Japan on Monday became the first country to hold two-plus-two talks with Russia, which has similar frameworks with the United States, Britain, France and Italy.

The resumption of the talks comes after Tokyo halted them in response to Moscow’s unilateral annexation of the Crimean region in Ukraine in March 2014, which drew condemnation and economic sanctions from Western countries. It also led to the suspension of Russia’s membership in the Group of Eight.

“The biggest benefit for Russia is the visual,” Brown said. “Russia can demonstrate that they are having a security meeting with a G-7 country, that clearly shows that the G-7 is not united in Russia policy and that Japan sanctions are more a symbolic step than actually designed to have a meaning.”