The Sino-Russian-US Triangle and Northeast Asia: A View from Japan

While there are various perspectives within Japan, here I set forth an individual viewpoint and analyze international politics as a long-time researcher of Russia. First, I couch my thinking in the context of today’s overall international situation and of a rough breakdown of the ongoing debate in Japan concerning the triangle and Japan’s ideal response. Then, I explain my view of the Putin administration’s way of thinking and of the revival of great power thinking. Next, I examine attitudes toward China, the Korean Peninsula, and the dispute with Japan over the Northern Territories. This article concludes with general findings about Japanese views of the strategic triangle along with my own interpretations of that configuration.

An overview of today’s international situation

Today’s chaotic international situation is an all-too-likely product of history—the stability of the Cold War era was an exception. Although the world experienced tense incidents such as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis during the Cold War era, looking back from today, it was, on the whole, a period of decades-long stability. Politicians and international politics specialists found it possible to predict without serious mistake the situation years or even a decade ahead. Today, however, there are difficult uncertainties in predicting a year, a half year, or even one month ahead. The biggest reason for the stability during the Cold War was the existence of a secure framework of two dominant camps—the liberal and socialist camps—whose framework served to suppress the main historical actors of nations, religions, and states, which had stirred division and chaos in human history until the mid-20th century. With the demise of the Cold War framework, these previously suppressed actors, returned to the historical stage, as if a Pandora’s box had been opened, giving rise to a chaotic world scene. The situation now resembles the first half of the 20th century or that before WWI, revealing the true face of the past, as viewed through the wide lens of the long-running history of humankind. 

When one looks at the current international situation, one sees new elements previously unobserved. For example, in place of security centered on traditional state military power, it is said that we have entered an era of a new “hybrid strategy” activated by using not only military power but also such means as soft power, fake news, and cyberwarfare transcending national borders. However, as far back as Sun Zi’s Art of War 2500 years ago, it was understood that the best means of battle was to achieve victory not through military power but without actually fighting. For that purpose, all means of disinformation or fake news would be employed. While the means used have changed with cyber space, the Internet, and warfare in outer space, the essence of security and politics has not changed in 1000 or 2000 years. That is clear when one reads not only Sun Zi but classics such as Plato’s The Republic and Socrates’ Dialogues, which do not appear outdated in light of the “revival of geopolitics.” In my view, amidst far-reaching change in international politics on the surface, there is no change in human nature.

A breakdown of the Japanese debate on the triangle and Japan’s ideal response

Although not a lot is written in Japan specifically on the Sino-Russian-US triangle, publications on each of the three legs of the triangle and on Japan’s relations with these three countries point to a level of contention not seen since early in the Cold War. One school is known for the view that the looming China threat supersedes everything else. It leads to a dual response: keep as close as possible to the United States and do whatever might possibly work to separate Russia from China, while building up Japan’s armed forces and collective defense. This has been the dominant approach since Abe Shinzo returned as prime minister in December 2012 and started wooing Vladimir Putin. A second school has responded that pursuing Russia is misconceived; its annexation of Crimea by force sets a precedent for Chinese actions in East Asia. Also, by splitting with the United States and others in the G7 through a softer approach, Japan puts its standing in the West at risk. Thus, it should treat Russia and China as dual threats, standing firmly with the United States. A third school has been gaining ground as distrust has grown toward Donald Trump over his softness toward North Korea, unilateral trade war with China, and pressure on Japan over trade and burden-sharing. It favors hedging by welcoming diplomacy with China as well as exploring other options, including with Russia. This split into multiple schools does not mean that the mainstream insistence on close alliance relations is in any jeopardy, but it does suggest that, given this foundation, other options are on the table.

Informing the Japanese debate are different assumptions about the nature of the strategic triangle of Washington, Beijing, and Moscow as well as about Tokyo’s leverage in impacting it. A fundamental assumption of the first school, which is not shared by the second school but is by some in the third school, is that Sino-Russian relations are fragile, largely because Moscow is wary. A corollary is that Tokyo is a prime target of Moscow’s quest for balancing Beijing and pursuing multipolarity in Northeast Asia. If more effort is put into enticing Moscow, there can be a big payoff, and Tokyo has geographical, economic, and geopolitical assets sufficient for swaying Moscow, many assume. A minimalist, less optimistic outlook is that at least Tokyo can gain enough ground to forestall a much-feared Sino-Russian alliance. The second school draws on the clashing assumption that Sino-Russian relations are already too deep and Japan’s means to impact them are too limited—especially given the weight of the US presence—to warrant hope in wooing Putin. Two variations in this school deserve mention as well: 1) Russia ‘s troubles are such that, no matter its relationship with China, Japan has little to gain from it; and 2) the Northern Territories issue is too important for Japanese national identity for caving on it in a deal that would conditionally lead only to the return of the two, small islands—too big a price.

Shifting interpretations of US relations with China and Russia affect all of the Japanese schools of thought. The prevailing assumption since Russo-US relations soured in 2014 is of a triangle in which Washington will stand firm against two rivals. This has favored the second school. Trump, however, muddies the waters due to his infatuation with Putin and personal rapport with Xi Jinping that could lead to a breakthrough agreement, as well as his love-fest with Kim Jong-un. US unpredictability complicates judgments about the future of the strategic triangle. Setting the idiosyncratic nature of Trump’s thinking aside has become more difficult, leading to interest in the third school and to more urgency for the first school. The long-term outlook for the second school appears more favorable, however, given the likelihood that Abe’s talks with Putin will not succeed and that Tokyo and Washington will remain closely aligned against Xi.

The most controversy in Japan regarding the triangle centers on the Putin administration. Views of the Xi Jinping administration have remained decidedly negative even after Sino-Japanese ties improved with Abe’s October 2018 visit to Beijing.  The Japanese public overwhelmingly feels threatened by China. Views of the Trump administration are rather negative, but the Japanese public maintains a positive outlook on the United States. Attitudes toward Putin are unsettled, however, since he has been praised for six years as trustworthy for his personal diplomacy with Abe, and his strategic thinking toward East Asia is assumed to be distinctive from his behavior in other regions. On the left and far right there is more suspicion of Putin, but on the center-right, under Abe’s influence, he continues to be given the benefit of the doubt. Assessments of Putin are, arguably, the primary factor in Japanese interpretations of the strategic triangle. My views of Putin, thus, serve as the starting point for how I evaluate the nature of this triangle.

The Putin administration’s way of thinking and foreign consciousness

An important hint to the Putin administration’s thinking is found in his November 2017 establishment in Crimea of a memorial to Aleksandr III (March 1881-November 1894). Recently, the following words of Tsar Aleksandr III have been oft-cited in the Russian mass media: “We should always remember that we are surrounded by enemies and countries that despise us, and that we Russians do not have friends. We do not need friends and allies; the best of them will betray you. Russia has only two allies: its army and its navy.”1 In contrast to his father Aleksandr II, known as the tsar who advanced Russian reform and modernization by such measures as liberating the serfs and launching zemstvo local self-government, Aleksandr III is known as an autocrat who was a reactionary stressing Russian autonomy. In his Yalta speech, Putin praised Aleksandr III as a great national figure, a patriot, someone who felt individual responsibility for the fate of Russia and devoted himself to defending the motherland and accelerating Russia’s development. Putin also said that current and future Russians should, as his heirs, believe that they must do everything in their power for the development of the motherland.2 It is no mistake to view Putin as someone who puts himself in the position of Aleksandr III and believes that everything is determined by military power.

(Source:, November 18, 2017)

Symbolic of the wording on the memorial’s platform, declaring that Russia has two allies which it can trust—the army and navy—is the fact that Crimea, where the memorial was built, was annexed by force from Ukraine. On March 1, 2018, Putin’s annual state of the union address, which was given shortly before the presidential election, extended twice as long as usual, and half of it was devoted to demonstrating Russia’s military strengthening and its newest weaponry. This was an exceptional state of the union address, focused almost exclusively on praising Russia’s military power. According to the specialists, the area targeted by the newest missile displayed on the screen was part of Florida. Believing that the outside world is all hostile to Russia, Putin assumed that in the event of a sharp dispute or conflict, it, in the end, could not be resolved by negotiations and dialogue or through international law. Thus, he shared Aleksandr III’s views and held him in highest esteem. Such thinking was also shared among his leadership group, as seen in the words Sergey Lavrov used in June 2016: “From the time of Ivan the Terrible, nobody in the world has wanted a strong, self-confident Russia. Never in history, with rare exceptions, have our partners been sincere with us, and it is necessary to recognize that, all the same, we have as our main allies the army, navy, and now also the air-space forces.”3 Clearly, the Russian leadership embraces a victim consciousness toward the outside world—a consciousness of being encircled by enemies. This is closely related, as discussed below, to the European and US missile defense system and NATO expansion and to China’s rapid economic and military development. Looking to the model of imperial Russia, Putin aims for a new Russian empire with military power as its foundation.

Revival in Russia of great power thinking and its policy toward China

It is officially said that Russia and China after the Cold War have retained the best relationship; however, if we understand that since Russia’s leadership stresses Aleksandr III’s words—“even allies will betray you; you can only trust military force”—Russia is not thinking about forging real relations of trust with its strategic partner. What sustains good bilateral relations is the fact that neither can develop sound relations with European countries and the US. Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia continues to be subject to sanctions from the G7. At the same time, China is in a “trade war” with the US, and Western states, fearful of US sanctions being imposed on them, hesitate to forge close economic ties with China. Although officially Russia has close ties to China, it is deeply fearful of rapidly strengthening economic and military ties. It would be better to refer to Sino-Russian relations as a “strategic partnership” between isolated great powers.

What most aggravated Russia’s victim consciousness was not only NATO’s expansion to the east, including the Baltic states, from the 1990s to the early 2000s, but also concern over NATO’s missile defense system spreading to Eastern European countries under the pretext of Iran’s nuclear and missile development. Russia emphasizes that when the Soviet Union was collapsing, the US promised the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand. In response, European states and the US assert that whether to join NATO or not was a matter to be decided by independent, sovereign countries, not a decision to be made arbitrarily between NATO and Russia. Similarly, whether Kazakhstan joins the CSTO or does not cannot be decided by a promise between Russia and China. The reality is that by the US and other NATO states expanding NATO without regard for the humiliation and self-respect of a Russia defeated in the Cold War, Russia was aroused to paranoia not only toward these states. After the war with Georgia in August 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, inside Russia some mass media even conveyed the view of Aleksandr Khramchukhin that rather than NATO being the main threat to Russia, from now on China would be the biggest threat.4

Such thinking has appeared for the following reasons. First, when the Obama administration in January 2009 introduced the “reset” of US-Russian relations shortly after Russia made South Ossetia and Abkhazia “independent” protectorates, it signified a recognition of Russia’s geopolitical “sphere of special interests.” Relatedly, a simple explanation is in order on Russia’s move toward imperialism. In the 1990s, Russia plunged into chaos and sought assistance from the developed countries, but after 2000, with the leap in prices for oil and gas in international markets, foreign currency came rolling in and self-confidence was restored. In 2003, the first deputy prime minister Anatolii Chubais approved a reform, restoring Russia as an imperialist country.5 Also, the founding editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta and the editor of Moskovskie Novosti Vitalii Tret’iakov approved of protecting Russians in Central Asian countries and—through voting there—annexation by Russia.6 More important, in its policy toward the countries of the former Soviet Union, the Russian foreign ministry in June 2006 issued a new directive shifting the focus from “territorial integrity” to “autonomy.”7 These were forerunners of the later war in Georgia and annexation of Crimea. Russian specialists judged that as Russia’s confidence grew through its annexation of Crimea and air strikes in Syria, no matter how powerful the militaries of European states and the US, they would be unable to fight given the large number of casualties that would result.

Second, in 1994 when Russia—alongside the US and Great Britain—asked Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons and join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, they guaranteed in return the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, including its territorial integrity. Ukraine agreed only to see Crimea later taken from it by Russia, while the European states, the US, and Japan, despite offering criticisms and imposing economic sanctions, lived with this fait accompli. If Ukraine had not discarded its nuclear weapons, it is likely that Russia would not have annexed Crimea. As noted below, Kim Jong-un clearly understood the meaning of this as well as of the cases of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi; no matter how talks proceed between Trump and Kim, North Korea cannot give up its nuclear weapons. This is the world Russia has helped to bring about; Japan should not look to it for cooperation in easing regional tensions.

Three difficult connections related to great power relations

Japan faces three difficult questions concerning Northeast Asia: 1) the relationship with China; 2) the problem of the Korean Peninsula; and 3) the issue of the Northern Territories vis-à-vis Russia. Regarding great power relations in Northeast Asia, various challenges arise. First, there is a possibility in the future that, for Japan, China will pose a bigger threat than Russia; relations with China will likely be more complicated. It is thought that the clash between Japan and China will intensify over such issues as the historical question, the Senkaku question, the South China Sea question, and the question of forging a stable regional order in East Asia. Japan brought forth the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” (FOIP) and put its energy into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) not simply for economic concerns, but due to deep-seated consciousness regarding long-term strategic problems with China. Recently, the Senkaku question has caused a direct danger in Sino-Japanese relations. This is directly related to Japan-US relations and US forces stationed in Japan. Several years ago, when Japan-China relations grew tense over this issue, the world was intensely concerned about a military clash. The main reason preventing that was the Japan-US Security Treaty, article five of which stipulates a joint response if there is an external armed attack on territory administered by Japan. In April 2014 President Obama and in February 2017 then-Secretary of Defense Mattis affirmed that the Senkaku Islands fall within the limits where article five applies. But of recent, Japan came to realize clearly that to the extent that the Japan-US Security Treaty was rendered meaningless, Japan would not be capable on its own to protect its sovereignty.

Early this year, an event highlighted the complicated nature of Japan’s relations with the US, China, and Russia. On January 8, Kawai Katayuki, special advisor to the LDP president for foreign affairs, spoke, as follows, at the Hudson Institute, where Vice President Pence on October 4 gave his hardline address regarding China, conscious that if Japan drew too close to Russia there would be criticism in the United States:
Japan shares with the US a sense of threat from China, which is continuing its expansionist behavior. In peace treaty negotiations with Russia it keeps in mind also that Japan and Russia could together oppose this sort of China threat. Moreover, in response to China’s BRI, it is necessary to strengthen linkages among Japan, the US, Australia, and India, at the foundation of which is the notion of the “free and open Indo-Pacific,” on which Tokyo and Washington have agreed.
Naturally, China objected to this statement by Kawai, and Lavrov too found this an outrageous statement, objecting strongly on January 14 in Moscow at the press conference following the Japan-Russia foreign ministers’ talks. It was to be expected that the Russian foreign minister, who stresses its good relations with China, would reject the thought that “Japan and Russia are cooperating in containing China.” Russian mass media too levelled scathing criticism of “nursery school level” diplomacy that a Japan-Russia peace treaty aimed at the territorial question is being replaced with the issue of containing China.8

Meanwhile, as Kent Calder reports, a great number of Americans are finding it difficult to understand why Japan is so actively trying to draw close to Russia.9 In Japan as well, Abe’s recent policy toward Russia has been harshly criticized as flattery, obsequiousness, and making excessive, one-sided concessions. Although I understand that Russia is alarmed about China’s strengthening military power, I do not think that Japan has the power to insert itself between China and Russia in order to contain China, as many US specialists have previously reasoned. Even recognizing the possibility that China will be Japan’s greatest future threat, I do not think that Kawai’s words can be persuasive to Americans. A foreign policy approach to cooperate with Russia to contain China makes Japanese appear to be naïve.

Yet, of late, due to the uncertainty of the Trump administration’s Asia policy, China policy has become more complicated. Trump, in raising the banner of “America First,” is weighing short-term US economic merits at the expense of an international strategy that protects the ideals shared among allied countries. In declaring his intention to withdraw the US from NATO, Trump shocked Japan. He has indicated that he may prioritize short-term economic advantages over alliance relations. His hardline posture toward China can be seen mainly from an economics standpoint, and his dismissal of allies is a shock not only to NATO, but to Japan too.  The resignation of Defense Secretary Mattis showed this, giving a scare to Japan as well as the NATO countries. Of course, I fully understand Trump’s deep dissatisfaction and criticism that NATO countries and Japan are putting too much of the burden on the US. However, Trump does not think about the long-term benefits accrued to the US in terms of maintaining close relations with allies, which share values with the US, and being the rule-maker of the international order. Nor does he think about stabilizing the overall world order through containing Russia and other autocracies and anti-democratic countries. Recently, despite the Senkaku issue and other tensions in Sino-Japanese relations, the Abe administration has drawn closer to China, which the Xi administration has welcomed. This is closely related to uncertainty over the Trump administration and the instability induced by that.

On foreign policy, in Abe’s January 28, 2019 policy speech to the Diet, he prioritized relations with China over those with Russia. He indicated that he would strive to return them to the track of complete normalization, asserting that they have raised bilateral ties to a new level based on three principles: (1) from competition to cooperation, (2) no mutual threats, and (3) development of a free and fair trading system. On the one hand, Abe reaffirmed that the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy is the Japan-US alliance, which he said is stronger than ever before. On the other, at a time of sharp Sino-US confrontation, Abe is demonstrating an inclination to draw closer to both Russia and China. In the background is not only the China threat but also Trump’s inconsistency.

On the second question, the most serious security issue between Japan and North Korea is the latter’s missile and nuclear weapons development, and in politics, it is the abductions issue. On nuclear weapons, the US attitude is the foremost concern. US-North Korean talks will continue on February 27-28 in Hanoi after last June’s Singapore summit. Kim has already visited China for the fourth time in January, trying to coordinate closely with Xi Jinping in preparation for the summit with the US. I am concerned that on the Korean Peninsula issue, Trump prioritizes personal ties to Putin, Xi, Kim, and other dictators, and he is overconfident about being able to resolve issues through negotiations with them. Trump has undue self-confidence that he can win in a game of chicken with Kim, as demonstrated in August 2017 in his strong response to North Korea’s assertions about firing a missile in the vicinity of Guam and in May 2018 in his note threatening to halt talks with Kim Jong-un. Such personal negotiations with a dictator to resolve the nuclear issue raise grave doubts about overconfidence. In my view, no matter what guarantees Trump offers, he will not get Kim to give up nuclear weapons or stop their development through negotiations. Kim cannot trust the guarantee of a term-limited US president since the “Kim dynasty” considers itself lasting for eternity. Of course, Kim is serious about using the summits with Trump for maximum political and economic gain.

On January 29, DNI Coats declared his doubts over the possibility that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons. These are natural. On the same day, The Washington Post reported that in October 2018 Russia had proposed to the North that it would supply a nuclear reactor in return for the North abandoning nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Even if this proposal was made, there is no expectation that the North would respond sincerely. If that were to occur, Kim Jong-un would look at the fate not only of Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi but also that of Ukraine—which ended up being annexed by Russia after agreeing to join the non-proliferation treaty and give up its nuclear weapons in return for a guarantee of sovereignty and independence from the US, the UK, Russia, and others—and realize that he could not prevent a similar outcome.

For Japan, a Korean Peninsula in possession of nuclear weapons and missiles poses a profound quandary. When I spoke recently with a close security advisor to Moon Jae-in, I had the strong impression that Moon feels closer to North Korea than Japan. What has become the most important topic for Japan is how to strengthen Japan-US-South Korean alliance relations and cooperation in the face of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, missiles, and dictatorship. Even if Japan and South Korea are in a complicated situation due to the “comfort women” issue, conscripted labor issue, and other disagreements, the uniform forces—those involved in military affairs in both countries—have maintained mutual understanding and cooperative relations. I have long taught international relations at the schools of the Self-Defense Forces officers and joint staff, and many South Korean soldiers have participated in these classes. There have been good relations of trust between the Japanese and South Korean military personnel.

Of concern now, under the Moon administration, is serious damage to relations of trust in military exchanges and security over several incidents in the military arena between Japan and South Korea. Despite North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the Moon administration’s appeasement of it, viewing it more as a partner on the peninsula than as a threat, has aroused doubts in Japan that South Korea is instead directing its containment energies against Japan. In the background, closely related is the Trump administration’s own appeasement policy toward North Korea. Now Japan’s security specialists are deeply concerned that North and South Korea share almost the same posture in carrying out antagonistic policies toward Japan, and the Trump and Moon administrations are jointly carrying out appeasement policies toward North Korea. In these circumstances, where Japan’s alliance and cooperative relations with the United States and South Korea would be shaken, Japan would have no choice but to move in the direction of strengthening its own military forces. There is no prospect of finding relief via closer ties to Russia or China, given their support for the very policies that boost North Korea.

For Japan, the North Korean nuclear issue is most seriously a matter of INF missiles, whereas for the US and Russia, the INF question is more directed at China—the reason Trump pulled out on February 2 of the INF treaty with Russia, in line with the new Missile Defense Review. Putin on February 2 declared that Russia would stop complying with the INF treaty and proceed with the development of new missiles. Both sides asserted the need for a new framework concerning this issue and for talks to continue. Both clearly have in mind China’s nuclear weapons and missiles more than North Korea’s.

Some military experts in Russia from earlier have emphasized that China’s missiles are deployed against Russia. Khramchukhin stated that the dumbest mistake Russia has made toward China is selling the SU-35S fighters and, inexcusably, the anti-missile S-400.10  Even as the US and Russia clash, they agree on the need for a new INF treaty framework that encompasses China. Yet, China, which is still far behind the other two in missiles, is not considering joining a new treaty to abolish these missiles. As a Japanese, I am concerned that North Korea’s missiles are not necessarily a deep concern of Trump, Putin, Xi, and Moon.

Third, I briefly comment on the Northern Territories issue in Japan-Russia relations as it concerns Russia’s relations with the US and China. Russia’s attitude toward the missiles of Japan and US changed after Russia was expelled from the G8 over its annexation of Crimea. Before 2013, Russia was not strongly opposed to missile cooperation between Japan and the US and the US presence in the Asia-Pacific, and this did not grate on its nerves. This was because Japan’s missiles were not targeting Russia. Russian reformers and democrats positively evaluated the US military presence as a stabilizing factor in Asia, and few people were concerned with the military. However, following Russia’s stand-off with the G7 and isolation from 2014, this missile cooperation became a sensitive topic.

In November 2016 when National Security Advisor Yachi Shotaro visited Russia he responded to a question from Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev that if the Northern Territories were returned to Japan “it is possible that US bases could be put there.” He said this because in article 6 of the security treaty “the US army, air force, and navy are permitted to use any territory administered by Japan,” and strongly desiring the US to apply the security treaty to the Senkaku Islands, Japan might be said to engage in opportunism were it to stress that the Northern Territories are an exception. Yet, even if the problem actually arose, a US base would not be put there despite the expectation that US forces could be expanded in Hokkaido.

Russia strongly rejected Yachi’s comments, and Putin came to raise the problem of US bases and Aegis Ashore as well as other missile issues with Japan as the number one reason for subsequent difficulty in resolving the territorial issue. Putin had recognized in the Irkutsk declaration in 2001, in the Japan-Russia Joint Plan of 2003, and at other times that the problem concerning the ownership of the four islands would be resolved with a peace treaty, and he had recognized the Tokyo Declaration of 1993. In other words, he had acknowledged that an unresolved territorial problem existed. However, from September 2005 he changed his opinion, revising history: “it is recognized internationally also that, as a result of the great victory in WWII, the South Kurils became Russian territory.” He stressed that Japan too must “recognize this is a precondition of peace treaty negotiations.” In other words, from 2005 Putin tried to deny the existence of a territorial problem between Japan and Russia. Yet, this response was made difficult by his recognition of the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which agreed that “after the conclusion of a peace treaty, the Habomai Islands and Shikotan would be transferred to Japan.” Under these circumstances, the issues of US bases and missile cooperation between Japan and the US became the best pretexts for Russia rejecting the transfer of territory. The Putin administration often makes statements to the effect that Japan is subordinate to the United States and is not an independent country.

Last, I want to explain the connection between the Northern Territories issue and China. Often Russia has spoken as follows to Japan. Having conducted territorial negotiations with China for 40 years, Russia in 2004 was finally able to demarcate the border. The reason was that in 2001 a treaty of good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation was concluded and the two strengthened relations of trust. In order for Japan to conclude a peace treaty and resolve the territorial problem, it first must deepen relations of trust by strengthening cooperation in economic and other areas. The reality is the opposite. What led Russia to rush in 2001 to a final demarcation of its border with China was fear that economically and militarily China was rapidly growing stronger. In the Aigun and Beijing treaties of 1858 and 1860, Russia seized 1.5 million square kilometers of territory (4 times the area of Japan). Even today, in Chinese historical writings these are described as unequal treaties imposed on China by force. Fearing that China might stress history more than international law and raise the issue of unequal treaties, Russia rushed to a final demarcation of the border. In other words, the reason for the demarcation was the lack of trust in Sino-Russian relations rather than the existence of trustworthy relations.


Japan has misjudged the Sino-Russian-US triangle by (1) being over-optimistic about Russia’s strategic thinking rather than recognizing its focus on military power and on Sino-Russian relations, (2) underestimating the degree to which US and European relations with Russia limit Japan’s room to maneuver, and (3) anticipating a breakthrough in Japan-Russia relations, which is unlikely to occur. In East Asia, the China and US factors have great bearing on Japan-Russia ties. Russia values ties to Japan as an economic card to use against China. China has been tough with Russia in negotiations over energy and other economic matters, and Russia wants to show that China is not its only important partner in the region, playing the “Japan card.” Russia also seeks to maintain good political relations with Japan in order to try to contain, at least a little, the US military presence in Asia. Through peace treaty talks with Japan, it has recently stressed the question of Aegis Ashore deployment and US bases in Japan. More than earlier, Russia has taken a tough stance on the Japan-US alliance treaty. Thus, it does not share Japan’s naivete about the prospects for negotiations or for altering the strategic triangle; it is only using talks with Japan for specific ends in economics with China and in geopolitics with the United States.

For six years upbeat coverage of Abe’s wooing of Putin has sustained the optimistic school that Japan can have a close alliance with Washington and a breakthrough with Russia, which will be helpful in limiting Sino-Russian relations. Despite the worsened Russo-US relationship since March 2014, this view remained widespread. Yet, pessimism has grown as Russia added more conditions in the path of a territorial agreement and peace treaty; this has awakened more Japanese to Russia’s hesitation to offend China and the fundamental divide between Russia and the US, which shapes Russian thinking about Japan. Meanwhile, a third viewpoint has also gained ground in the shadow of the unreliability of Trump’s attitudes toward alliances, trade, and North Korea. The strategic triangle appears more uncertain, leading Abe to seek better relations with China as well as to keep going in his pursuit of Russia. Even so, the Japan-US alliance remains the foundation of Abe’s strategy, as US-Russian relations grow more troubled and Japan-US military cooperation against China is only likely to become more intense. The picture has been muddled, but the outcome seems clear. 

1. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 18, 2017.

2. RIA Novosti, November 18, 2017.

3. Komsomol’skaya Pravda, June 1, 2016.

4. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 18, 2014 and May 16, 2014.

5. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 1, 2003.

6. Moskovskie Novosti, March 9, 2006.

7. Izvestiya, June 2, 2006.

8. Moskovskii Komsomolets, January 18, 2019.

9. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 2, 2019.

10. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 16, 2014.