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What will Japan choose: partnership with the US or the Kuril islands.
Because of the intensified tension in the Russia-US relations caused by the conflict in Ukraine, Japan now faces a very difficult task of building a balanced strategy of behavior in the relations with the US (Japan's main military partner) and Russia (which is rich in resources and is promising a satisfactory solution of the Kuril islands' territorial problem).
This foreign policy problem of Japan cannot be looked upon without looking into the history first. After the loss in the WWII Japan became economically and militarily dependent on the USA, while the Soviet Union obtained the Kuril islands, the legitimacy of which can be argued about forever.
Russia and Japan have recently started to cooperate more actively. However, the Kuril question is not solved yet. The upcoming visit of Vladimir Putin to Japan does seem like a new step in the relations of the two countries, but the peculiar position of Japan on the Ukrainian question and the imposition of sanctions towards Russia can destroy the results achieved in the last few years. Putin commented on this situation:
"I'm surprised to hear that Japan imposed some sanctions and pauses the negotiating process. I don't fully understand what does Japan have to do with the Western sanctions. We're ready [to discuss the Kuril], but is Japan ready? I didn't really get it".
Japanese sources explained the situation: "It's a complex diplomatic problem. But Japan has to send a clear message to the world that it does not accept the violation of the Ukraine's territorial integrity", said Shigeki Hakamada, professor of Niigata University. Then he added:
"After all, Japan is the only country out of the 7 most developed ones that can feel the pain of Ukraine, as its integrity was also violated by Russia".
Taking these statements into account, we may find the claim of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzou Abe about Japan's readiness for the dialogue with Russia at least odd.
Obviously, the United States fire up the situation. According to Washington, supposed Putin's visit to Tokyo can be incorrectly interpreted as a possibility of a solution between Russia and the world on the Ukrainian question. Most likely, economical dependency on the US and the urge to withstand China are the main reasons of the new sanctions from Japan.
Anyway, the Land of the Rising Sun, on the one hand, tries to present itself as a country independent from the USA, and on the other hand wants to preserve good-neighborly relations with Russia and hopes to solve the Kuril question. But Japan still economically and militarily depends on the US, so every initiative from the Japanese government that doesn't correlate with the plans of the US can't be fulfilled.
This ambivalent position of Japan not only disrupts its authority on the international level, but cools down the relations with both countries. It's hard to predict what solution Japan will choose, though considering imposing the sanctions on Russia we can say that good relations with the US are the priority for Japan. The direct consequence of the sanctions can be a delay or a cancellation of Putin's visit to Japan, which will obviously have a negative effect on the relations with Russia.
The interesting detail that is not really lit up by the Russian mass media is that Japan has recently passed a resolution that allows Japanese armed forces act outside Japan (which was banned by the Constitution of 1947 that was fobbed off on Japan by the US). Of course, that can be seen as a political trick, but one thing is clear: the Eastern border of Russia is not that stable anymore, and Japan gained the possibility to take radical measures with the usage of armed intervention.
At first glance, Japan's actions look odd, but if one looks closer one will see a well-established strategy. Using the contradictions caused by the tension in the South China Sea, Japan spreads its economical and political influence on the ASEAN countries (the amount of the direct investment in the ASEAN countries in the first six months of 2013 exceeded $10 billion). We should note that a lot of these countries were occupied by Japan during the WWII. Japanese politicians are also not afraid of using offensive words towards China, which, in addition to the resolution about using armed forces outside the country, can be seen as Japan's buildup of a political weight. The indecisiveness between the US and Russia also proves that the Land of the Rising Sun cautiously but certainly tries to lessen the US's influence. So in the Asian-Pacific region another powerful player might appear, that will be independent from the US and so will be able to change the established power balance. After all, we must not forget that Japan had been ruled by military government for almost 700 years and it's also important to keep in mind Japanese imperial ambitions that became really apparent in the first half of the XX century.