TOKYO - Three news items in recent weeks seem to herald a return of Russia to the Asia-Pacific region. The first was the visit of Russia's defense minister to one of the four Kuril Islands for a "military inspection trip," following on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's stop there last year. Second, Russia's navy will spend more than $150 billion to add dozens of submarines and surface ships over the next decade while shifting its focus to the Pacific Ocean. Third, Russia will deploy advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles to protect the Kuril Islands.
All these stories relate to the seven-decade dispute between Russia and Japan over control of the Kuril Islands, and therefore seem to indicate a worsening of the relationship. With a seemingly inexhaustible supply of petro-dollars filling Russian military coffers, Moscow is poised for the first time in two decades to make its presence felt in the northern Pacific Ocean.
Yet it may well be that President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are actually laying the groundwork for focusing on Russia's real long-term adversary: China. For that reason, Tokyo and Moscow need to guard against a new crisis in their relations and should instead consider jointly how to deal with the Chinese security challenge they both face.
While Russia and Japan have faced off over Siberian and Kuril territory since the mid-19th century, Sino-Russian conflict is much older, dating back to the late 1600s. The two share thousands of miles of border, over which they have skirmished as recently as 1969. While Japan is no stranger to competing for regional hegemony, it is Russia and China that believe themselves to be the real leaders of Eurasia.
Moscow's desire to begin reasserting its influence in areas closer to Russia's core strategic interests has led to it dramatically increasing the number of air force flights near Japanese territory, for example. This leads to two questions: first, do the moves related above indicate a clear policy shift by Moscow toward focusing on the Asia-Pacific? Second, if so, why now and what is the ultimate goal of Messrs. Medvedev and Putin?
The answer to the first question may be simply that Moscow has recognized that its future prosperity rests with the nations of the Asia-Pacific, as have other leading nations around the globe. Russia's role in the global trading system centered on Northeast Asia is largely as a supplier of raw materials and energy supplies.
Yet there is a political element to expanding Russia's strength in its Far East, as well, in part to make its voice louder in regional councils, and in part to maintain leverage in negotiating export agreements with Beijing, Tokyo and others. Moscow refuses to be seen as supine as Mongolia or as isolated as Australia in dealing with China, and its attempts to bolster its military power are a direct way of making that point.
More significantly, Messrs. Putin and Medvedev seem to be positioning Russia for the long term, and their ultimate goal may well be to deal with Chinese growth in the region. Both states know that Russia's sparsely populated Siberian Far East will become increasingly attractive to a militarily powerful China in search of vast amounts of raw materials and resources.
From timber to oil and gas, and even clean water, Siberia offers much that China will need in order to maintain not merely its economic growth, but some of the basic necessities of life in an industrialized nation. To give but one example, China's net imports of petroleum will more than quadruple by 2035, according to some estimates, to 14 million barrels per day; meanwhile, 65% of Russia's prospective petroleum reserves are located just north of China, in Siberia, along with 85% of the country's natural gas reserves.
Yet there are only about 25 million Russians in all of Siberia, an area of more than 9.6 million square kilometers stretching from the Urals to the Kamchatka Peninsula, giving a population density of less than three persons per square kilometer. Further east, the Far Eastern Federal District has a population of just seven million persons, or one person per square kilometer, while 100 million Chinese live in the provinces just across the border.
Officially, only 50,000 Chinese are resident in the Russian Far East, but Chinese merchants already control much of the trade there. From a geopolitical perspective, it is all but certain that Chinese influence in Siberia will grow as Russia's population shrinks, and future Chinese governments may well come to have a proprietary interest in the region.
This is the stimulus for the new Russian buildup, focused on increasing naval assets, asserting its claims over small territories, and deepening its defensive capabilities. Japan, which in no way threatens Russian interests, is an easy foil to use in this not-so-subtle game of shadow boxing between Russia and China. Recognizing this increasing Chinese interest, however, would give Moscow and Tokyo a chance to discuss the future geopolitical environment in the Asia-Pacific.
Japan, too, is placing its hopes on Russian oil and natural gas sources while at the same time eyeing China's growing interest in Arctic shipping routes through the Sea of Japan. For China's trade with Europe, a northern route could avoid the politically fraught South China Sea. Yet as China's shipping grows in the north, whether from Russia or in the future from Europe, Japan will probably worry that the PLA Navy is likely to follow. This parallels Russia's concern to protect its Pacific trade routes from a greater Chinese naval presence.
More broadly, Japan will look with great concern on any Chinese increase in influence or direct control in the Russian Far East. Such a change in the status quo could come by plan or by accident, such as an attack on Chinese citizens in the region. That type of expansion would present Tokyo with significant challenges in protecting its northern areas as well as its southwestern islands, which have now become Japan's strategic focus in the new National Defense Program Guidelines released in December.
Opening a dialogue with Russia on the future of its Pacific maritime regions could lead to expanded economic relations, thereby lessening Russian concern over Chinese domination of its Siberian trade and ensuring that Japan has an interest in maintaining the status quo in the region. Here, the United States can play a role, not only by expanding its security deliberations with Tokyo, but also potentially by beginning broad discussions with Moscow over stability in the Russian Far East. At this stage, there is no reason why Beijing could not join such a nascent dialogue.
Some, including the Chinese themselves, may assume that Beijing would never do anything so destabilizing as expanding into Siberia. Yet faced with a growing country needing to have access to critical raw materials that lie in a largely depopulated region, Russia is already acting. Both the U.S. and Japan should similarly think through the potential for disruption and instability in Northeast Asia lest they be caught unprepared, as so many nations have in the past.