Lord Palmerston, who served as prime minister of Britain in the 19th century, once remarked that “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” By quoting these words, a Japanese government insider said recently that Japan is no exception — particularly in an age when a character like Donald Trump gets nominated for president of the United States (and goes on to be elected), noting that Japan would have to map out a new path of its diplomacy should its alliance with the U.S. starts to become adrift.

As if to reflect this view on history in transition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bent on seeking a breakthrough on the decades-old territorial dispute with Russia over the group of islands off Hokkaido and move Russo-Japanese relations forward when he meets with President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 15 in Nagato in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi.

If everything goes the way he hopes, there will be a dramatic transformation in the security environment surrounding Japan, ultimately giving rise to the possibility of military cooperation between Tokyo and Moscow and weakening the Japan-U.S. alliance. Should that happen, chances of rapprochement between the U.S. and China will not be ruled out, and the paradigm shift of power dynamics among Japan, the U.S., China and Russia could bring about a totally different international landscape.

In a private conversation with his friend in early September, Nobuo Kishi, senior vice foreign minister, said that calling for a simultaneous return of all the four islands seized by Russia since the end of WWII would not lead to anywhere, adding that if Moscow agrees to return Shikotan Island and the Habomai islets first, talks on the two others — Kunashiri and Etorofu — could be put off for another 100 years.

This represents a major departure from Japan’s long-standing position of confirming its sovereignty over all the four islands before concluding a peace treaty with Russia. The remark by Kishi, Abe’s younger brother, is believed to reflect the scenario that the prime minister has in mind in the talks with Russia.

Abe’s basic strategy for his upcoming meeting with Putin is to (1) confirm an early return of Shikotan and the Habomais, (2) offer large-scale economic cooperation for the development of the disputed islands and Siberia, (3) leave the status of Etorofu and Kunashiri up to future negotiations, and (4) start talks on concluding the peace treaty. Putting off the settlement on Etorofu and Kunashirai — which together account for 93 percent of the total land area of the disputed islands — could be interpreted as Japan semi-permanently giving up on the sovereignty over them.

What national interests does Abe hope to gain by effectively giving up the two islands? His strategy is to keep China, Tokyo’s biggest immediate security headache, in check militarily by promptly resolving the territorial row and teaming up with Russia, the nation’s regional archenemy at the time of WWII.

Shotaro Yachi, head of the National Security Council secretariat, confides that to face squarely with China, Japan needs to settle the territorial row and improve its relations with Russia. A Foreign Ministry official says there is ample room for such a scheme to materialize because Russia in fact fears Beijing’s expanding sphere of influence.

At his meeting with Abe in Sochi on May 6, Putin mentioned a project to build a 40 km bridge connecting Hokkaido with the Russian island of Sakhalin among what he called numerous ideas for infrastructure development between the two countries.

That was an indication that Moscow counts more on cooperating with the maritime nation Japan with its advanced technologies than with China, a continental state seeking to expand its sphere of influence in Eurasia, in helping develop the economically lagging Far Eastern areas of Siberia.

And Japan appears willing to respond to such expectations — Abe handed Putin a classified paper listing potential large projects of economic cooperation with Russia, ranging from construction of port facilities in Vladivostok to waterfront development in Moscow. The estimated total cost of the projects, which specified the names of Japanese makers and trading houses that expect to take part, will exceed ¥1 trillion.

Bilateral cooperation with Russia being envisaged by Abe is not limited to the economic sphere but extends to defense and security arenas. If China gets nervous as a result, that would be exactly what Abe hopes to achieve.

Back in 1916, or about a decade after the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war, the two countries signed an agreement — akin to security alliance — for them to cooperate militarily to resist any attempt by a third party to control China. Although that pact was abrogated following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, it must have given Abe and members of his administration much to think about as they ponder the nation’s security strategies.

There is no guarantee, however, that Putin will join forces with Japan against China, as Tokyo hopes it would. To the contrary, Russia accepted a Chinese proposal to hold joint military drills in the South China Sea in September, fully aware that Japan and the U.S. are on alert over Beijing’s moves to build its naval bases in that region.

Should Japan agree to shelve the dispute with Russia over Kunashiri and Etorofu, which would be tantamount to recognizing Russian sovereignty over those islands seized by force at the end of WWII, that could send a wrong message to China as it schemes to use force to seize the Senkaku Islands from Japan in the East China Sea.

Suspicions are strong within the Self-Defense Forces about a potential Russo-Japanese alliance that could lead to military cooperation. A ranking SDF official says it is most likely that in exchange for returning Shikotan and the Habomais to Japan, Russia would demand that neither the Japanese naval and ground forces nor U.S. troops be deployed on those islands.

As a sovereign nation, however, Japan would find it unfeasible even to discuss such demand. Should Japan agree to ban American troops on the islands, Washington might counter by saying the U.S. would not protect the Senkakus from foreign invasion under its security treaty obligations, which in turn would play right into Chinese hands, the official points out.

Economic cooperation between Japan and Russia could benefit both countries. With Japan’s technologies and funding, costs of drilling oil in Siberia could go down, which in turn would enable Japan to import more Siberian oil. But Russia is not likely to follow any single-track diplomacy. Instead, Moscow will weigh its relations with both Japan and China as it seeks to maximize Russia’s economic, diplomatic and security interests at each turn of events, says a source at Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

An SDF insider says there is no need for Japan to curry favor with Russia at the risk of damaging its alliance with the U.S. because even if some progress is made in the territorial row with Moscow, the resulting impact on the regional landscape would not be as significant as Abe hopes.

The incoming Trump administration will be certain to review the nation’s security strategies, including the alliance with Japan. A former official of the Central Intelligence Agency has said that should Japan move toward negotiating a peace treaty with Russia on partial return of the disputed islands, Washington would carefully evaluate how that would affect its ties with Tokyo and could take a fresh look at its security policy toward Asia.

In view of Washington’s confrontation with Moscow over Syria and Crimea, U.S. President Barack Obama has expressed displeasure and concern over the rapprochement between Japan and Russia. If Abe goes ahead with negotiating a peace treaty with Russia on the return of two of the disputed islands, the chances cannot be ruled out of the small rift between Tokyo and Washington developing into a serious schism under the new U.S. administration.

Adm. Timothy J. Keating, a former chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, has testified that a Chinese military leader had sounded him out with an idea of splitting the Pacific Ocean into two — with the U.S. controlling the eastern half and China the western half. Such idea may well become an undercurrent in discussing security in the Asia-Pacific region.

The rapprochement between Japan and Russia risks being the trigger to reverse the pursuit of a closer alliance between Japan and the U.S. Is Abe’s policy going to put the words of the 19th century British prime minister — that a nation has neither a permanent enemy nor a permanent ally — into deeds?

This is an abridged translation of an article from the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. Read more articles at www.sentaku-en.com.

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