Military policy and maneuvers undertaken by Russia in recent months appear to indicate that Moscow has begun to feel threatened by China’s growing military strength, according to experts on Russian affairs.

Last July, for example, Russia conducted the most extensive military exercises in its history in the Far Eastern region. Moscow is also said to be contemplating deployment of the French-built amphibious assault ship Mistral in the Far East.

Russia’s official explanation remains that these actions are meant to counter the Japan-U.S. alliance in connection with the territorial dispute between Russia and Japan over the four northern islands that were occupied by the former Soviet Union immediately after the Pacific War as well as with the mounting tensions in and around the Korean Peninsula.

In the views of an expert, however, Russia’s buildup in the Far East is also intended to counter the rapidly expanding military might of China. Indeed, Russian officials responsible for security and military affairs do not hide their perception that Beijing has become a serious threat, the expert said.

Officially, Moscow denies that China is a potential threat, and endeavors to play the political game of promoting friendship with Beijing. As a result, any suspicion of China is excluded from Moscow’s public discussions on security and military strategies.

But the truth is that cracks have started to emerge in the seemingly solid ties between the two powers since around 2009, leading Russia to regard China as a “hypothetical enemy.” It is no longer possible to fully comprehend Russia’s military strategy, including nuclear strategy, without taking into account various factors related to China.

Its new national security strategy adopted in 2009, for instance, shows that the Kremlin has serious concerns about the increasingly influential roles being played by China in the multipolar world.

Furthermore, the military doctrine, revised last year for the first time in a decade, reflects Russia’s perception that while the chances of Russia entering a full-scale war with the West have lessened, the dangers of regional disputes along its borders have mounted. It is commonly accepted among experts in Russian affairs that the “borders” referred to are not the one with Georgia but rather the long boundary with China.

Last December, Russia integrated its Far East military district and part of its Siberia military district into the Vostok (eastern) military district, which covers Russia’s entire border with China. In addition, the headquarters for the new military district was shifted from Vladivostok on the Japan Sea coast, where the Pacific Fleet is based, to Khabarovsk further inland.

The only possible explanation for these changes is that Russia has considered the potential of border conflict with China. An expert on Russia’s security affairs says the expansion of China has become a serious threat to the Russia’s sparsely populated Far East.

Russia’s defense budget for 2011 is about 20 percent larger than 2010’s, with further increases expected in the years ahead. As detente with the U.S. and European countries progresses, what else would prompt Moscow to pursue arms expansion than threats it fears from China?

That Russia is distancing itself from China is also reflected in its policy toward North Korea. When North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun visited Moscow in December, his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, said in an angry tone that the North’s bombardment of a South Korean island and killing of civilians “deserve condemnation.” He was referring to the shelling in November by North Korea of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed two South Korean marines and two civilians and injured 15 others.

This is said to have been the first time that Russia has publicly reproached North Korea. A Russian diplomatic source said it represented Moscow’s de facto ultimatum to Pyongyang.

This shift of Russian policy with regard to North Korea has two aspects: One is the increasingly close relations between Russia and South Korea, especially in the joint development of natural resources. The other is the weakening relationship between Russia and China.

As its relations with the U.S. and Europe improve, especially with the U.S., Russia no longer sees the need to strengthen cooperation with China. Conversely, Moscow feels threatened by what it considers Chinese “overconfidence,” as exemplified by China’s stepping up its naval actions lately in international waters. To counter such moves, perhaps Russian leaders believe it makes more sense to work closely with the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Relations between Japan and Russia have been at a low point since Nov. 1, when President Dmitry Medvedev defied Japan and became the first top Russian leader to visit one of the four northern islands claimed by Japan but held by Russia.

Japan should realize it has a good opportunity to mend ties with Moscow by taking advantage of the growing rift between Russia and China. Japan should explain to Russia the importance of strategically working together.

Such a tactic is rarely used by Japan. South Korea, though, scored a big diplomatic victory by approaching the Kremlin in earnest and winning a major shift in the Kremlin’s attitude concerning North Korea.

Unfortunately, not many in Japan’s political and diplomatic circles think in this way. Indeed, the Japanese government is so preoccupied with one issue — the return of the northern islands to Japan — that Tokyo does not appear to recognize such an opportunity.

Russia is triggering a major shift in East Asian regional relations with potentially big repercussions. If Tokyo fails to take advantage of this, Japan could once again be left out of a global development.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, economic and social issues.

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