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The U.S. Can Learn From Japan’s Efforts To Improve Russian Relations


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ( Russia Insider)

U.S.-Russian great power rivalry has intensified in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, with the latest clash occurring in Syria. As was made clear at a recent Council on Foreign Relations symposium, this new conflict is different from the previous Cold War in that several of these theaters border Russia directly. What is overlooked, however, is the consequence this rivalry has on Russia’s Asia-Pacific borders.

Russia is Indispensable to Japan

U.S.-Russian hostilities have the potential to impact the U.S.’ re-balance to the region to counter China. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, Japan has renewed its own outreach efforts to Russia. These efforts have lessons for the U.S. with respect to overcoming unproductive rhetoric and soberly recognizing shared security interests in arguably the most important geopolitical region of the future.

With respect to the Asia-Pacific region, much news has recently focused on the Philippines’ apparent shift from the U.S. in order to improve relations with China. While these maneuvers certainly have the potential to impact U.S. strategy in the region vis-à-vis China, they pale in comparison to Japanese efforts to improve its own relations with Russia. In contrast to Filipino moves, which are very early in a new administration and still ambiguous, Japan has clearly shown a desire to improve Russo-Japanese relations steadily over the course of several years.

In a nutshell, Japan realizes the immense importance of Russia to its own efforts to balance China and it is not about to let U.S.-Russian hostilities stand in its way. Russia needs Japan as well in order to better balance China. Lastly, Russia craves Japanese investment and technical expertise to further develop the Russian Far East.

Recent U.S. efforts to diminish and portray Russia as merely a “regional power” are quite correct, but not nearly in the way originally imagined. A simple glance at a map shows the many regions Russia can impact and make life more or less difficult for the U.S. if it so chooses to do so. Japan, unlike the U.S., clearly recognizes this and, in turn, recognizes good Russian relations as crucial on geopolitical issues such as China and North Korea. Japan also recognizes good Russian relations as essential in its own quest to gain access to resources not only in the Russian Far East, but in both Central Asia and the Arctic as well.

Russian Signalling Needs To Be Listened To, Not Ignored

Compared to North Korea’s ceasefire with South Korea, a legacy of the Cold War, Japan’s technical state of war with Russia actually goes back further to World War II. Despite the lack of a formal peace treaty with Russia and the resultant 70+ plus years of “war”, Japan has been persistent in its efforts to resolve the Kuril Islands dispute.

As mentioned before, these efforts are given even more salience recently with the rise of China and the efforts of both Japan and the U.S. to counter this phenomenon. Despite nationalistic rhetoric from both public and private quarters in both countries, Russia and Japan have both been persistent in improving relations as they recognize this as crucial to improving their overall regional security and economic environment.

Russia has recently abrogated a series of nuclear treaties with the U.S. in the wake of the Syrian ceasefire collapse. These cancellations are but one of several Russian signals sent to the U.S. to indicate that continued U.S.-Russian hostilities in Ukraine and Syria can have unforeseen consequences globally.

With respect to the Asia-Pacific region specifically, these come in the wake of previous Russian signals sent by both air and sea which were meant to convey this very same message. The difference now is that the rate and weight of these new signals appears to be increasing, with the very latest being Russian overtures to Vietnam to reinstate its presence at Cam Ranh Bay, as well as increased Russian strategic bomber patrols near U.S. Pacific Ocean military bases.


Russian Tu-22M3 “Backfire” strategic bombers on patrol (Wikimedia Commons)

Currently, debate rages within the U.S. foreign policy establishment as to whether U.S.-Russian hostilities constitute a “new” or “old” Cold War. The case can indeed be made that it is a “new” Cold War, made infinitely more complex and dangerous than its predecessor due to increased multi-polarity and globalization.

What is clear, however, is that the patience and persistence shown by both Russia and Japan to improve relations may finally bear fruit. The U.S. and Russia should both keep this in mind, shed unproductive rhetoric (which may help win elections, but is not actually useful for much else), and realize that improved relations may take years, even decades. Mutual recognition of shared global security interests demands nothing less.

Video courtesy of The Council on Foreign Relations



Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is President of Bright Group Consulting L.L.C., where he provides strategic advisory services regarding US-China relations. He has conducted numerous cross-border business policy and feasibility research projects and has been engaged in international geopolitical risk assessment and analysis for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in international business policies in the U.S. and emerging markets and has provided policy advice for numerous firms and institutions. He is a regular contributor to several foreign policy outlets, including the Foreign Policy Association. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.