Japan Should Moderate Reaction to Russia’s Move in the South China Sea

The inauguration of a frigate built by Russia for the Vietnamese navy. Photo: Getty Images.
The inauguration of a frigate built by Russia for the Vietnamese navy. Photo: Getty Images.

Russia’s new military agreement with Vietnam, which maps out cooperation between the long-time friends until 2020, has caused concern in Japan. An increased Russian presence brings into conflict two different foreign policies of Shinzo Abe’s government –maintaining a strong posture on power plays in the South China Sea and being careful to avoid confrontation with Russia.

The new agreement, which includes Russia agreeing to deploy rescue boats to Vietnam and to take part in rescue missions, follows a number of moves to deepen naval cooperation. Since 2011, four Russian-made naval vessels have joined the Vietnamese navy, and the two countries are planning a joint military exercise in the next three years.

Shinzo Abe has tried to avoid taking part in diplomatic pressure against Russia. Japan did not apply strong economic sanctions to Moscow following the annexation of Crimea, and also did not expel any Russian diplomats from Tokyo in response to the attempted assassination of the Skripals in Salisbury, for which the Russian ambassador praised Japan. Abe’s goal is to keep the relationship smooth so that he can continue the negotiations with President Vladimir Putin to resolve long-lasting territorial disputes between the two countries over the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands.

But there is growing scepticism over whether Putin wants to really resolve this issue. Beyond the South China Sea, Russia has been unsupportive of Japan’s position on North Korea, one of the most important diplomatic issues for Japan, despite the fact that Japan has shown such friendly gestures towards Russia.

If Russia continues to maintain its posture in East Asia this way, Abe might be forced to rethink his diplomacy, not least because Japanese strategy in this area is closely aligned with the US. In addition, as he loses internal support due to a series of domestic scandals, he might come under further pressure to maintain a strong stance on the South China Sea.

But Abe should be cautious. Unlike in Europe and the Middle East, Russia does not intend to be an active player in East Asia. Instead, it wants to stop any country from becoming too powerful in this region. The Russian agreement with Vietnam is intended as more of a bridgehead in the region, so that Russia can keep its influence without taking an active role. Moreover, Russia does not want to mess with China, and will be careful to not step on Beijing’s toes in a region it knows is critically important to Xi Jinping and the Communist Party.

Abe should keep these intentions in mind and resist knee-jerk reactions to Russia’s move. Negotiations over territorial disputes between the two nations have been carried out in a friendly atmosphere since Abe became prime minister in 2012, and Abe should focus on continuing this.

Hayato Hosoya, Academy Fellow, International Security.

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