Although it appears that Russia and China are very often called strategic partners but not yet allies, neither Russia nor China are interested in transforming their relationship into a formal alliance.
Their non-committed policy suits both countries, since it gives them a choice to pursue mutually agreed and mutually exclusive policy. At the same time, Russia and Japan are quite concerned about China’s rapid emergence as a great power. Neither wishes to see China achieve a dominant position in East Asia. However, the efforts of the two countries to prevent the emergence of a dominant China have so far been unsuccessful; Russia and Japan cannot easily do away with their differences over the unresolved Kuril Islands dispute. Russia is not ready to return the disputed territories to Japan in the near future, and Japan has no intention of forcibly reconquering the territories, while diplomacy is not making any headway despite the continued efforts of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to settle the dispute. Finally, China and Japan see themselves as rivals in the Asia-Pacific region and distrust each other, even though they intend to limit tensions in relations.
The stalemate between Russia and Japan and the ambivalent position between Russia and China enable China to become a major power. To this end, China is using an intelligent anti-access area denial (A2AD) strategy, which is explained below. However, it should be stressed that Japan and Russia are also pursuing a very similar strategy.
The Position of Russia
Russia has no territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific region; it is a status quo power in the Far East and wants to steer clear of China’s numerous disputes with Asian countries over, for instance, the Spratly and Paracel Islands and historical grievances with Japan that date back to the Second World War era. Whether Russia can stay out of China’s numerous disputes or at least tacitly support China is uncertain. China, on the other hand, had publicly voiced no concern about Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in March 2014, when the West imposed sanctions. China rather abstained from voting at the UN Security Council and, as a result, provided Russia with tacit support. Therefore, China is expecting a similarreaction to the annexation of Taiwan, for instance, or a military conflict breaking out in the South China Sea. Whether Russia will respond in a quid pro quo manner or not remains to be seen. Therefore, it can be said that Russia is playing an ambiguous role in the region where China sees itself as the leading actor on a par with the US.
For the time being, Russia is also playing a cautious game with China. For instance, in September 2016, Russia symbolically joined China in a maritime exercise in the South China Sea, although this exercise was conducted far from the disputed area in order not to upset an equilibrium maintained by the disputed sides. It should be remembered, however, that Russia and China’s navies have since 2012 conducted a series of bilateral naval exercises known as Joint Sea in the Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea, in order to improve their basic level of interoperability. The naval exercises continued in the Sea of Japan in 2017, in the Yellow Sea in 2018 and in the South China Sea in 2019. These exercises help the two militaries to increase interoperability in amphibious operations, air-defence, anti-submarine warfare, and search and rescue operations.
Russia’s policy in relation to China follows the formula of “trust, but verify”. As a result, Russia takes every precaution in its policy vis-à-vis China. In February 2018, the Russian military deployed two additional S-400 air-defence batteries to Vladivostok, homeport of the Russian Pacific Fleet, in the country’s Far East, to boost their own A2AD capability. Overall, Russia currently has a total of seven S-400 air-defence batteries deployed in the Eastern Military District. The deployment of additional S-400 air-defence systems correlates with the need to protect Russia’s expanding naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Russia is thus protecting its own interests in the Far East in order to be prepared for all possible developments in the region.
The Position of China
China has a strong interest in maintaining its security in the South China Sea against regional competitors such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as in Southeast Asia. There China has unresolved problems with India. China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam are buyers of Russian weapons and Russia is anxious to keep them as customers for the foreseeable future. Whether China can force Russia to stop supplying weapons to Vietnam or not remains to be seen. Surely Vietnam could one day become a test case for the strengthened Russian–Chinese relations.
It is obvious that China wants to completely dominate the Asia-Pacific region, as it regards this region as China’s area of interest. To accomplish this mission, China wants to push the US out and become the undisputed political, economic and military power of the region. Thus, China is ready to implement an A2AD strategy.
China’s A2AD strategy aims to cover the South China Sea, as most of the South China Sea is international water under international maritime law. China’s strategy for sealing off the South China Sea is based on a combination of new weapons and new terrain, represented primarily by the deployment of anti-ship ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles and the construction of artificial islands with the military strips that China has built unhindered in recent years.
However, the geography remains China’s Achilles heel. Beijing is very annoyed that accessing the South China Sea from Shanghai or Tianjin until it anchors at the other end of its voyage takes such a long time. In order to leave the Chinese seas or return from distant ports of call, naval ships have to cross the First Island Chain. The chain of islands is the location of the US Navy and the Air Force. In addition, its inhabitants are allies or friends of the United States – that is, they are potential opponents of China. Breaking the chain of islands by conquering part of it, like Taiwan, or by trying to win American allies from Washington’s embrace through diplomacy, is critical to China’s strategic success. For the time being, it seems that China is not diplomatically appealing for countries which contest China’s claims in the South China Sea. As far as the conquest of Taiwan by China is concerned, this is still on China’s table. Finally, the Chinese A2AD strategy has met with resistance from the Japan, which has its own plans to oppose China.
The Japanese Response
According to reports circulating in December 2015 and in response to Beijing’s assertiveness in the East China Sea, Japan has begun placing Type-88 anti-ship missile batteries on over 200 islands in the region, many of which form part of the First Island Chain. Developed in the 1980s, the truck-mounted Type-88 has a range of 180 km and is the domestically-built version of the US Navy’s HARPOON anti-ship missile. This deployment has also been complimented by MIM-104 PATRIOT air-defence missile batteries. The Abe administration has also announced that over 10,000 Japan Self-Defence Forces (SDF) will be deployed to the islands by 2020.
In addition to the aforementioned measures, Japan looks to deploy Boeing’s EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft that can remotely neutralise China’s air-defences and command system. The aircraft would enhance Japan’s A2AD strategy, which aims to keep Chinese aircraft and naval vessels from encroaching on Japan’s surroundings. These measures are taken by Japan to counter China as a rising naval power. Thus far, the US has not given a green light to Japan to purchase the aircraft.
At the moment, ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have to traverse the East China Sea and enter the Pacific under the knowledge that Japanese missile batteries are situated at the First Island Chain. In the event of a Sino-Japanese conflict in the East China Sea, China would not be able to enter the East China Sea without risking significant losses of ships, aircraft and personnel. Thus in effect, this move by Japan is denying Beijing the ability to operate militarily in disputed waters relatively close to the Chinese mainland. By implementing this doctrine in the East China Sea, Japan joins a growing number of Asian nations who have developed their own A2AD strategy in maritime spaces.
The Position of Japan
Most Japanese hold the US–Japan alliance to be the most important element of Japanese foreign and security policy. Japan remains the cornerstone of a US-backed regional security order and partner of the US to push back against increasing Chinese economic and military influence in Asia, the Pacific and beyond. Therefore, China is seeing Japan as a defender of American interests in the Asia-Pacific region that China is not exactly happy about. Despite seeing the US–Japan alliance as crucially important to Japan’s foreign and security policy, Japan’s SDF are becoming more independent. After all, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel clearly stated at the Shangri‐La defence summit in Singapore in May 2014 that one out of four US priorities was “enhancing the capabilities of our allies and partners to provide security for themselves and the [Asia‐Pacific] region.” That also include increasing the defence budget to support enhanced capabilities to operate independently and that’s exactly why Japan wants to improve SDF capabilities.
Nevertheless, Japan’s approach to solving maritime issues with Russia and China differs from that of the US. The US National Security Strategy of 2017 does not hide the fact that Russia and China are seen as opponents. Japan, however, attaches more importance to dialogue and confidence-building. Japan’s geographical location plays a decisive role in this approach, since Japan is surrounded by Russia and China and thus has no choice but to live as peacefully as possible and to be prepared for the worst. As a result, Japan is trying to solve the Kuril problem through negotiations with Russia, but Russia is not prepared to return the islands to Japan in the near future. China claims sovereignty over Japan’s uninhabited Senkaku Islands. The dispute over the islands has not yet been settled.
The situation regarding Russian and Chinese interests towards Japan is quite complex. Both countries do not want a remilitarised Japan or a Japan with nuclear weapons and long-range offensive missiles. Both Russia and China believe that the US–Japan alliance, including the Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty signed between the United States and Japan, limits their options in Northeast Asia and poses a potential threat to their security. Japan has ongoing territorial disputes with both countries that make it difficult to maintain normal relations. Japan’s smouldering territorial disputes with both countries are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Despite the common interest of Russia and China in Japan, Moscow and Beijing see Japan differently. Both Russia and Japan are concerned about China’s rise as a great power. Both do not want China to achieve a dominant position in East Asia. Both countries want a relationship that could control China’s ambitions, a goal blocked by the unresolved Kuril dispute. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to resolve the Kuril dispute showed that the Prime Minister wanted rapprochement with Russia at China’s expense. Russian relations with China have not suffered from Abe’s rapprochement. Chinese government officials recognized that Abe has little chance of resolving the dispute through diplomatic efforts, and Japan is not seeking a military solution for the Kuril Islands. Therefore, the rapprochement between Russia and Japan is not on the table, and therefore the Russian–Japanese intentions to control Chinese ambitions remain unfulfilled. This leaves the three countries with their own foreign and security policies, which distrust each other and are aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
It should be possible for Russia to achieve a balanced foreign and security policy between China and Japan. Russia knows well how to navigate for its own benefit between countries that see each other as enemies. Despite their joint military exercises, the partnership between Russia and China has not yet been put to the test. China may therefore find that Russia is not exactly the partner China expected, while even tacit support that China hopes to receive from Russia may not materialise.
At the same time, the unresolved Kuril problem shows the limits of diplomacy and illustrates the unfulfilled expectations of the Japanese Government. For Russia, the solution to the Kuril question is not as crucial as for Japan, which is why Russia is putting the issue on hold. In addition, the Russian militarisation of the Kuril Islands shows that the statements of Russian officials on Kuril solutions are untrustworthy.
Relations between Japan and China are still full of mistrust and mutual accusations dating back to the Second World War. In the event of a Sino-Japanese conflict in the East China Sea, Russia and the United States could perhaps participate. It should be emphasised, however, that participation is not self-evident. As a result, China and Japan alone are pursuing their military agenda and are aware that they are facing each other if the worst comes to the worst.
Thus the Russian–Chinese–Japanese constellation is clouded by differences in perception, historical mistrust, the way the three countries play the regional game, and political elites who have much to lose in the event of a conflict. China wants to influence the great power game in its favour, including a robust economy that can finance China’s military build-up. Russia wants to maintain the status quo without participating in China’s military adventures and responding to Japan’s overtures. And Japan wants to maintain the support of the United States as it is provoked by China and its economic clout, which Japan has enjoyed for more than two decades. It is important to stress that Japan was and is the third largest economy in the world.
Eugene Kogan is a defence and security expert based in Tbilisi, Georgia.