Under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has engaged with Russia as a security partner, thereby taking a very different approach to that of the United States and other Western countries. The aim has been to encourage Moscow to distance itself from an increasingly alliance-like relationship with Beijing. This strategy has long been questionable, but its failure is now undeniable. Russia and China’s joint air patrol over the Sea of Japan last Tuesday, which included dangerous violations of national airspace, demonstrates that a reassessment of Japan’s security policy toward Russia is now overdue.
The U.S. National Security Strategy clearly presents Russia as a revisionist power and strategic competitor. By contrast, Japan’s counterpart document, which was approved by the Abe administration in December 2013, states that “it is critical for Japan to advance cooperation with Russia in all areas, including security.”
Guided by this outlook, the Japanese government began to hold “two plus two” meetings with Russia. This format, which brings together foreign and defense ministers, had previously been reserved by Japan for countries with which it had especially close security ties, namely the U.S. and Australia. Added to this, regular meetings were initiated between the heads of the Japanese and Russian security councils.
There was a pause in high-level contacts following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, but the Abe administration signaled its commitment to continued engagement by introducing only token sanctions. Japan also decided not to suspend joint naval drills that are held annually between the Maritime Self-Defense Force and Russia’s Pacific Fleet.
From 2016, Japanese security cooperation with Russia was again intensified, with an increase in exchanges between senior officers. Most striking was the visit by Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov in December 2017. This raised eyebrows since Gerasimov remains subject to Western sanctions.
This increase in bilateral security cooperation is part of Abe’s broader efforts to improve relations with Russia, which he hopes will lead to progress toward resolving the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories. However, Japan’s engagement in the security field is also a response to the rise of China.
Japanese strategists believe that China represents a chronic threat to national security and are alarmed by the increasingly close relationship between Beijing and Moscow. The fear is that China and Russia will make common cause on key regional issues and that Japan will be left facing hostile relations with all of its neighbors. The Abe government’s strategy has therefore been to develop a partnership with Russia and to seek opportunities to drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow.
This approach might appear logical, but it has proved a failure. Far from drawing Russia away from China, Japan has watched helplessly as the Sino-Russian strategic partnership has gone from strength to strength.
Joint naval exercises, which began in 2005, have become increasingly substantive. Russia has also supplied China with some of its most advanced weaponry, including the S-400 air defense system and Su-35 fighters. Moreover, in September, China sent 3,200 troops to participate in Vostok-2018, the largest Russian military drills since the end of the Soviet Union. The first joint air patrol, which was held Tuesday, is therefore just the latest development in a relationship that looks increasingly like a military alliance.
Tokyo’s cooperative approach has also been unable to stop Russia from increasing its military activity in Japan’s vicinity. This included the deployment in 2016 of new anti-ship missiles on the disputed islands off the coast of Hokkaido.
Russian forces also regularly send aircraft to test Japanese air defenses. For instance, in fiscal 2017, Japanese jets were scrambled 390 times in response to Russian aircraft. Usually the Russian planes approach Japanese airspace but change course before entering it. On occasion, however, there are violations, as occurred in September 2015 and June of this year.
Why has Japan’s strategy failed to achieve the anticipated change in Russian behavior? The reason is a fundamental misreading of Russian strategic thinking.
The Abe government hoped that Russia would see Japan as an attractive, alternative partner. Yet, in reality, Moscow does not see Japan as an independent security actor at all. Instead, Japan is viewed as merely an adjunct of the U.S. As such, given the current tensions between Washington and Moscow, a true partnership between Russia and Japan is out of the question. This was made explicit in January when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference that Russia and Japan were very far from being partners.
Russia’s primary goal when engaging with Japan on security matters is therefore to weaken the system of U.S. alliances in East Asia and to exploit areas of tension. This is why the Russian leadership has sought to draw attention to local opposition to the presence of U.S. forces in Okinawa.
It is in this context that Tuesday’s joint patrol should be understood. By sending an aircraft into the airspace above the Takeshima islets, which are held by South Korea but claimed by Japan, Russia knew that it could stir up trouble between these two U.S. allies.
Sure enough, after South Korea fired warning shots at the Russian aircraft, Foreign Minister Taro Kono angrily complained about Seoul’s action, saying: “Takeshima is Japan’s territory. It is Japan that should take action against the Russian plane that entered its airspace.” This incident also put the U.S. in a difficult spot since it seeks to remain neutral on the question of sovereignty over what it calls the Liancourt Rocks.
None of this means that security dialogue with Russia should entirely cease, yet Japan’s strategy needs to change. Looking at their experience since 2012, the Abe government must realize that Russia is not a potential security partner that will help Japan to uphold the regional status quo. Instead, Russia is a revisionist power that, as with China, is determined to overturn the U.S.-centered alliance system in East Asia that is the foundation of Japan’s security. It is this understanding that Japanese engagement with Russia should be based.
James D.J. Brown is an associate professor of political science at Temple University Japan.