Japan-Russia Relations in Triangular Context with China

While attention is riveted to Sino-Japanese relations and, lately, has increasingly focused also on Sino-Russian relations, Japan’s relations with Russia have drawn little notice. To the extent that interest has risen in 2013, it has centered largely on negotiations over the territorial dispute. The strategic dimension is neglected. This article starts with an assessment of Russian strategic thinking toward Japan, taking a close look at recent developments that international observers have largely failed to notice. It then turns to Japanese strategic thinking toward Russia, taking relations with both the United States and China into account. The conclusion points to signs that rebalancing is under way, while also emphasizing the limits of likely changes.

Putin’s Approach to China and Japan in Triangular Context

On April 29, 2013, at the first official visit of Japan’s prime minister to Russia in ten years, it was agreed to convene a 2+2 meeting (between the Japanese and Russian foreign and defense ministers) for high-level strategic consultations concerned with a broad range of security questions. The new opening in relations linked to bilateral security was the biggest achievement of the summit. Having since 1960 conducted similar meetings with its ally, the United States, and from 2007 with Australia, which calls Japan its “closest partner in Asia,” Japan has added Russia as third on this list. For Russia, Japan is the fifth to make the 2+2 list after the United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy, and the first partner of this sort in Asia.1 Regarding each other as strategic partners means that the two have greatly raised the strategic level of their relations. This gives the impression to third countries that, as the two are staring at China’s rise as a great power, they are rushing to draw closer together.

Putin’s Posture to Japan and China in the Process of Change

It is said that, politically, Japanese-Russian relations sank to their worst level since the end of the Cold War through the visit to Kunashiri of President Medvedev in November 2010. From September 2011 after Prime Minister Putin declared his candidacy for president, while leaving aside the specifics for resolving the Northern Territories issue, Russia repeatedly has sought security cooperation with Japan. It would be wrong to assume that, even today, this security dimension in Russia’s posture of focusing on Japan has weakened. As its strategic interests have been shifting from Europe to Asia, in order to develop advantageous strategic cooperative relations with China, with which Russia has lost all parity, Russia must strengthen strategic links to Japan, the United States, Vietnam, and India, all of which have put distance between themselves and China.

After he declared his candidacy, Putin’s restraining posture toward China can be seen. For instance, in October 2011 it was revealed that a year earlier a Chinese national security officer had been arrested for trying illegally to obtain technical information on the ground-to-air S-300 missile. There was no prior incident of Russia publicizing a Chinese spy incident, and it was surmised that this was at Putin’s direction. After this, even among persons with clear ties to the Russian government and security specialists, direct criticisms of China could be heard, meaning that, at last, the long-standing political taboo against criticism of China inside Russia had ended.

With China’s GDP having reached more than four times Russia’s, the national power gap between the two has widened. Moreover, Russia’s concern about China has grown even in the security realm with China’s advance into Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia and the Arctic, and its nuclear policies lacking in military reasonableness. In February when the author visited Russia’s military academy of the general staff, high officers frankly acknowledged their great concern about the expansion of China’s military power.

In his first foreign trip after becoming head of state, when Xi Jinping made an official visit to Russia, the Joint Communique repeated the stock phrase that relations have reached an unprecedented high level, citing, for example, that they have agreed on border demarcation, and that the strategic partnership has hit its zenith, peaking from 2005 when they began large-scale joint military exercises. The Sino-Russian strategic partnership took shape on the basis of two factors: utilitarian cooperation of Russia supplying China natural resources and weapons; and strategic cooperation in containing the United States. At this summit, the two did not conclude a long-term agreement setting the price for exports of natural gas, and they reached an impasse over the fine print for supplying the most technologically advanced Su-35 fighter and other large-scale weapons over the coming decade and beyond. One foundation of the relationship is looking less solid than it did just a few years ago.

At the same time, a gap has opened between China and Russia in the degree to which they are motivated politically to contain Japan and the United States. According to persons close to the Russian government, the Chinese side has appealed many times to launch a joint struggle over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) and Northern Territories (Southern Kuriles) islands, but Russia has not responded and hereafter will maintain its neutrality in Sino-Japanese relations. In late May 2005 alarm was raised by an international relations council think tank under Russia’s Foreign Ministry that a Sino-Japanese war could break out, resulting in a global financial crisis. The recommendation that it offered was that Russia should do everything possible to prevent this conflict.2 This thinking has only intensified in the light of the deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations over the past two years.

Gap in Sino-Russian Thinking Seen in Joint Military Exercises

Joint military exercises between China and Russia under the rubric of the SCO have continued since 2003. One face of this is a plan for the two states to stand together in order to contain the United States and Japan. In fact, in the newly launched joint naval exercises from 2012 coordination between China and Russia ran into difficulty from the outset in regard to the nature and place of location of the exercises, and even the April 2012 initial exercises in the Yellow Sea were considerably delayed from when they were first proposed.3 In the second exercises lasting 12 days from July 5, 2013, which were originally planned for June, only at the last minute on July 1 was agreement finally reached when military officers met in Moscow. This shows a widening difference in how the two states are thinking about the military exercises.

Similarly revealing was the fact that China trumpeted to the media and others that this was the first military cooperation with Russia in the Japan Sea, while the host country Russia restricted the materials for the foreign media, limiting reports to the outside. Moreover, the location of the exercises was not on the high seas of the Japan Sea, but in Peter the Great Bay near Vladivostok. One could perceive a difference of degree between China and Russia in their political stance on containing Japan. Against this background, one can surmise the reason for starting the 2+2 and for the Russian side’s determination to advance Russo-Japanese strategic cooperation.

About 20 Russian and Chinese ships, combined, participated in this maritime exercise, but when compared to the 10,000-person, large-scale, joint military exercises of 2005, the scope of these exercises was limited. In the past, Sino-Russian military collaboration took the form of outward-looking exercises to send a message to third countries, but the maritime collaboration that began in 2012 transformed the exercises into an inward-looking process to grasp the maritime capability of the partner country. It is thought that the objective through various exercises is direct confirmation: for Russia, of the capacity of the Chinese navy, in the midst of striking maritime advances; while for China, of Russia’s advanced anti-submarine warfare capacity. Given these more limited objectives, neither side needs large-scale joint exercises with the participation of a broad swath of the military.

Were Urgent Far East Exercises Held without Prior Notice Aimed at China?

On July 12, the final day of the Sino-Russian joint military exercises, the commander in chief Putin, instructed Defense Minister Shoigu from the following day until July 20 to conduct urgent military exercises without advance notice in the Russian Far East. Combining the eastern command located there with the adjacent central command, 160,000 troops, 5,000 tanks and other military vehicles, 70 ships, and 130 airplanes and helicopters participated, in what was the largest emergency drill, even including the Soviet era.4 Until then, “Vostok 2010” from June 2010, involving the participation of 20,000 troops, was said to have been the largest exercise in the Far East after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As the Russian exercise was proceeding, five Chinese ships that had participated in the joint Sino-Russian maritime exercises for the first time in history entered the Sea of Okhotsk, passing through the Tsuruga Straits on July 14. Moreover, about 23 Russia Pacific Fleet vessels in order to join the exercises called with little notice, on July 13-14 passed through the Tsuruga Straits, rushing to the exercise area in the Sea of Okhotsk.5 Some are of the view that the emergency Russia exercises may have been related to Chinese warships entering the Okhotsk Sea for the first time in history. One reason for this is that large-scale military exercises were conducted in the Sea of Okhotsk at the time the Chinese icebreaker “Snow Dragon” was crossing the sea en route to Arctic exploration. A second reason is that on July 16-17 Putin personally inspected the maritime exercises, and the places chosen for the inspection were Sakhalin oblast looking out at the Okhotsk Sea and the Zabaikalsk area, near the Sino-Russian border. A third reason is that although exercises on short notice to inspect the emergency response of the Russian military had been conducted in February 2103 for the first time in about twenty years in the west, south, and central military districts, only the Far Eastern exercises, as stated above, were on an extraordinary scale.

One cannot prove whether the exercises entered China’s field of vision, but the fact that Putin ordered them on the last day of the Sino-Russian joint maritime exercises just before the Chinese ships headed to the Sea of Okhotsk, at a minimum, meant that observers abroad and in Russia would not weary of this sort of interpretation. Avoiding the successive occurrence of the joint and emergency drills would have prevented any misreading of whether there were anti-China elements behind the decision to undertake the emergency exercises.

The Maritime Security Cooperation that Russia Is Seeking from Japan

Recently, Russia has repeatedly been seeking at foreign ministers’ meetings and summits of top leaders maritime security cooperation with Japan. On Sept. 2, 2011 on the day commemorated in Russia marking the end of World War II, i.e., victory over Japan day, Russia began the first large-scale military exercises since the end of the Cold War based in the Okhotsk Sea. At the foreign ministers’ meeting that followed in November, Lavrov said, “The intention was not to provoke Japan. In order to avoid any misunderstanding, we should establish close relations between our defense ministries.” This was a suggestion for strengthening military exchanges with Japan. At the APEC summit in September 2012, the leaders confirmed a plan, in light of changes in the strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region, to make concrete cooperation at sea concerning the Arctic Ocean and other areas, and in October, Petrushev, secretary of the Security Council who is closest to Putin, signed a note in support of strengthening relations between Japan’s Foreign Ministry and his office.

In the background to its quest for security cooperation with Japan, Russia in order not to regard Japan as an autonomous security player, in the future aims to develop triangular cooperation including the United States. Through sustaining mechanisms of 2+2 mutual cooperation among the three states, Russia is trying to open the way to the desired triangular, strategic dialogue. For Japan too, advancing strategic dialogue with Russia is beneficial for Northeast Asian security, in which are found the Korean peninsula and China, and where consciousness of the triangular strategic environment and security interests is drawing closer.

The maritime security cooperation that Russia is seeking, natural as it is, is aimed also at the United States. According to Russian security specialists, Russia recognizes that China’s maritime expansion will in the future be extending to the north. This is the lure driving the Russia side to seek maritime security cooperation with Japan and the United States.6 On the basis of China’s advance into the Sea of Okhotsk, Russia is beginning to recognize the reality of the expansion of its military presence into the Arctic Ocean. It is exploring the future realization of three-way military exercises with Japan and the United States. Apart from participating for the first time in 2012 in trans-Pacific exercises off Hawaii organized by the US Navy, it is considering expanding joint search-and-rescue drills between the Maritime SDF and Russia’s Pacific Fleet from the Japan Sea toward the Sea of Okhotsk and the Arctic Ocean.7

Along with Putin making clear on June 17, 2013 at the Sino-Russian summit his support for Japan’s entry as an observer in the Arctic Council, which had been established in May, at the end of May a report was made public positively evaluating Japan-Russia joint development of natural resources in the northern part of the Sea of Okhotsk. Including Japan, six countries were admitted to observer status on the Arctic Council—China, India, Italy, South Korea, and Singapore–, but, all along, Russia had been negative toward China’s participation and only supported India and Japan. Moreover, if joint resource development in the Okhotsk Sea were realized, it would mean numerous comings and goings of Japanese tankers, one could even expect the expansion of search-and-rescue operations of the maritime SDF and the Russian Pacific Fleet to this sea. While showing concern about China’s expansion into the Sea of Okhotsk and the Artic Ocean, which are located in Russia’s sphere of influence, Russia is entertaining expectations of cooperation with Japan in both seas. One cannot exclude the possibility that China’s new move into the Sea of Okhotsk will have an influence on forthcoming negotiations over the Northern Territories.

Abe’s Approach to China and Russia in Triangular Context

In December 2010 when President Medvedev visited Kunashiri, bilateral relations were considered in Japan to have plunged to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War, but who would have predicted that just three years later a 2+2 meeting would occur? More than a change in Japanese-Russian relations per se, this was a result of a far-reaching transformation in the environment surrounding the bilateral relationship. One factor was domestic: in 2012 both the Putin and Abe regimes came back to power, meaning that the political situation had stabilized in each country. A second factor was international: North Korea’s repeated missile and nuclear tests and China’s maritime advance, as US influence was relatively reduced in the Asia-Pacific region, meant that the security environment was changing. While Russians were cautious about criticizing China or focusing on North Korea’s threat to stability openly, awareness of a transformed international environment is not far below the surface of their commentaries. In Japan, it stands squarely in the forefront.

After December 2012, when the Abe regime launched its diplomacy that aims for a panoramic perspective of the world (chikyugi zentai o fukan suru gaiko), in just ten months he visited 23 countries, and held summit meetings on more than 110 occasions. From the start of 2013, there have occurred four summits just between the leaders of Japan and Russia. Showing the emphasis on ASEAN in diplomacy, Abe chose as the destinations for his first foreign trip Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, while Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio was sent to the Philippines, Singapore, and Brunei, drawing criticism from China’s media as taking the shape of a containment plan toward China. Summit meetings with Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye failed to materialize, and diplomatic activity detouring around these countries can be seen. However, at the first meeting of the Japan-Russian 2+2, the Japanese government took the position that it should advance relations, keeping in mind the big picture for dealing with separate problems without influencing bilateral relations directly with China, with which Japan has one of its most important bilateral relationships, and it explained to the Russian side that it was open to dialogue with China. Also, expressing to the Russian side Japan’s position on the current situation concerning China’s maritime advance and threat to use force, it reached an agreement between the maritime SDF and the Russian navy on anti-terrorist and anti-piracy joint exercises and on maritime staff cooperation.

Although strengthening security cooperation between Japan and Russia is not aimed at containing China, it means a tendency for consciousness in the two countries to draw closer concerning the regional security environment. Even though Defense Minister Shoigu at this meeting expressed concern about globalization of the US missile defense system, not only did Russia recognize the utility of the Japan-US alliance as a stabilizing factor in this region, the positions of Japan and Russia was essentially the same on the question of North Korea. A difference of degree existed regarding China’s maritime advance, but the direction was toward a common way of thinking on this issue. Japanese and Russian thinking was the same even on points concerning security stability in Northeast Asia and on advancing bilateral maritime security cooperation. In January 2013 Japan’s NSC was established, and along with, for the first time, establishing a National Security Strategy, the defense guidelines were revised on this basis, setting the basic direction for regulating defense power. This seems to have exerted certain influence in both advancing maritime strategic cooperation and moving to strengthen defensive power in the direction of islands in the southwest.

There is also movement toward developing Japan-Russian strategic dialogue into trilateral exchanges involving the United States. At the July 2012 Japan-Russia summit in Sochi, there was agreement, according to informed non-governmental sources to raise the trilateral Japan-US-Russia meeting on Northeast Asian security questions to Track 1.5, including government representatives. The meetings are co-organized by JIIA, IMEMO, and CSIS, and took place in Washington in 2010, Tokyo in 2011, and Moscow in June 2012, and they presented to each government the joint proposals formulated by private citizens from the three sides, including the author.8 Looking at the contents of this document, one can recognize that on China, North Korea, and other thinking regarding the strategic environment in Northeast Asia, Russia is drawing closer to Japan and the United States, and that there exists a lot of common interests in regard to security in the three countries.

Even so, at present in the area of security, the Japan-Russia connection is limited in political scope, and it is premature to expect joining together in future military actions. First, this is because Russia is not an allied country of Japan and the United States, and security cooperation is naturally limited. Second, in both countries, the mutual distrust that lingers from the time of the Cold War has not yet been brushed away. Especially, there is a possibility that the existence of the unresolved Northern Territories (South Kuriles) question has become an impediment to strengthening bilateral relations in the area of security. Third, for Russia until relations are damaged with China, which it values most in Asia, there is a low possibility that it would pursue progress in strategic cooperation with Japan and the United States. In fact, even at the first meeting of the 2+2, Russia, out of diplomatic concern, avoided being drawn deeply into the China question. Putin himself lacks a clear strategy toward China, and it is thought that from now on Russia will continue to grope for its own position in relations with the United States and with China.


Without a peace treaty, there are limits on security cooperation with Russia that includes the territorial question. Defense cooperation between Japan and Russia has been proceeding since 1999. Even in Aug. 2013 incidents of concern lingered such as repeated territorial incursions and Russia’s military modernization of the Northern Territories, indicating that security distrust from the Cold War has not been set aside. However, exploring the new area of security cooperation and adding the prior areas of economic and natural resource cooperation, shows that there is great significance to expanding the arena of Japan-Russia cooperation. Even as the territorial negotiations go ahead, along with broadening them, we can expect new areas to emerge. However, at the present stage, there remain a lot of issues before we can realize actual military cooperation with political thinking about security cooperation between Japan and Russia in the forefront. The time has come when Japan, setting aside the China factor, should begin serious discussions about how high to raise security cooperation with Russia in the Arctic Sea and the Far East region.

1. At the Russo-US summit during the G-8 summit of June 17, 2013, there was an
agreement to revive the Russo-US 2+2 meetings, which had been halted.

2. “War in Northeast Asia: Possible Scenarios,” Russian Council on International Affairs, May 28, 2013, http://russiancouncil.ru/inner/?id_4=1880#top (accessed June 3, 2013).

3. For details, see Hyodo Shinji, “Churo mitsugetsu wa misekake: tainichi kankei o kyoka shitai Putin,” WEDGE Infinity, http://wedge.ismedia.jp/articles/-/2748.

4. The Russian Ministry of Defense HP, http://structure.mil.ru/structure/okruga/east/news/more.htm?id=11801793@egNews.

5. The Russian Ministry of Defense HP, http://www.mod.go.jp/js/Press/press2013.htm.

6. For details, see Boei kenkyujo, ed., Higashi Ajia senryaku kaikan 2013, http://www.nids.go.jp/publication/east-asian/pdf/eastasian2013/j08.pdf, 261.

7. Sankei shimbun, internet ed., http://sankei.jp.msn.com/politics/news/130425/plc13042512480014-n2.htm.

8. The Japanese Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), http://www2.jiia.or.jp/pdf/report/20120621e-JA-RUS-US.pdf.