The new iteration of Russia’s national security strategy and the latest Xi-Putin joint statement offer important clues to wedges that can be exploited in Russia’s relationship with China and Japan.
On 2nd July, President Putin approved a new iteration of Russia’s national security strategy. The overwhelming focus on preserving the traditional values of Russian society in order to ensure stability dominates much of the text. However, combined with recent developments and hints in other communiqué, there are some key indications that shed more light on Russia’s relationship with its East Asian neighbours.
Japan has been on the receiving end of suspicion and the full spectrum of conventional deterrence from Russia. While China is, tentatively at least, an ally against common adversaries.
The new strategy reflects a very pragmatic view that the Russian national security apparatus has internalized. With the primary focus being less about carving out the space for the stature duly owed to Russia as a great power – but rather preserving and persevering.
The strategy explicitly mentions “protection of the territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Russian Federation” as a key priority.
Crimea remains a centre of gravity for Russia, and the West’s recent attempt to probe its defences only goes to prove the point. While the incident between HMS Defender and Russian forces is downplayed by the UK, Russia continues with warnings of dire results for any repeat perpetrations. It is fair to say that Russia has been proactively conducting an increased number of military exercises in the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan, which represents their resolve to secure their maritime interests and approaches to their littoral space.
China’s position is ambiguous about Crimea and its recent engagement with the UK and its pursuit of national economic interests over supporting Russia is a geopolitical wedge ripe for exploiting – given the right narrative and patron.
While Russia continues to hope for a holistic co-operation approach to its relations with Japan, the most clear indicator is the declining bi-lateral trade between Russia and Japan and the proliferating bi-lateral trade between Russia and China.
Since successes in other avenues such as economy and trade are few and far between, Kurils have unfortunately become the bottom line in Russia-Japan bi-lateral relations.
Russia additionally sees Japan’s security co-operation with the US as inherently suspicious, as can be gauged from the recent comments made by President Putin and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. Both Russian leaders have expressed concern with US’s plans for basing precision strike missiles on Japan’s territory under the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, and Japan’s unsatisfactory response on the matter being unable to assuage Russian concerns. – It is likely that these missiles would be able to target Russian territory, thus raising the threat perception on Russia’s part.
The presence and involvement of China and US in the region also complicates things for the Russo-Japanese bi-lateral relationship, with a bloc approach to security in the region looking inevitable.
However, a recent research publication by Matteo Dian and Anna Kireeva advocates a “wedge strategy” lens to view the Russia-Japan relationship.
According to the wedge strategy argument, there doesn’t have to be a complete decoupling between the target countries, and divergence only on certain issues is an acceptable outcome. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s eight-point economic co-operation plan is a perfect example of such a strategy succeeding.
At the time, Russia was able to derive significant benefits, including virtually toothless sanctions imposed for mere conformity by Japan in the wake of the 2014 events in Crimea and the prospects of Japanese investment into Russia’s economy in the following years.
While on the surface, it seemed like only concluding a peace between the two countries and settling of the territorial dispute over the Kurils was on the cards. The real equation was, and to some extent still is, Russia’s desire to inspire divergence between US and Japan on matters that can threaten its interests. While Japan wishes to prevent China and Russia from seeing their interests as converging against Japan, including China securing Russia’s support over the Senkaku islands dispute.
However, ever since Abe left office, Russia and China have grown closer – but their co-operation is tentative, pragmatic and not permanent. The tentative nature of the alliance can be gauged from the joint statement released after the meeting between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin on 28th June. The statement clearly says that the alliance between Russia and China is not “a politico-military alliance similar to those that developed during the Cold War”. In other words, the alliance is hardly ideologically inspired, binding or takes precedence over the respective national interests of either party.
The equation is different in the Arctic – For now
Many commentators and experts identify Russia as a junior partner to China in their alliance against common adversaries. While looking at the global aggregate trends across domains, this might be partly true, but it is not the case in the Arctic.
A significant point in the aforementioned joint statement is China’s apparent willingness to acknowledge Russia’s interests and rights in the Arctic. Which is a considerable feat. of restraint, judging by China’s actions elsewhere against other countries. This acknowledgement can be gauged from the apparent consensus between the two on the development of the Northern Sea Route(NSR) but “on the basis of mutual benefit and respect for the interests of the coastal state.”
The superiority of Russia’s commercial, military and Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief(HADR) logistics along the NSR is unrivalled and will remain so for the foreseeable future – thus leaving China with little scope but to offer its deference to Russia.
While Japan has made no secret of its enthusiasm for hedging its transhipment bets on the much more efficient NSR-Trans Siberian railway route, it remains to be seen that trade volumes along it are able to surpass or at least rival gains that Russia-China co-operation may bring in.
In conclusion, It may be argued that by not subjugating Russian interests in the Arctic – China has selectively and retrospectively chosen to bide its time until it is able to upend the established order in this region of the world, too.
If Japan can successfully offer Russia tangible material benefits far outclassing what China can muster, there is a chance that Japan can drive a wedge between Russia and China thus furthering its own interests.
The views expressed are the author’s own and don’t reflect the recommendations of the Takshashila Institution