Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Russian Bomber Invades Japanese Airspace; Gets Me Thinking about the Alliance

Reported here by BBC, I was mystified by the Russian action. After all, Tupolev 95s have been plying their trade since the Korean War. They don’t suddenly wander into Japanese airspace 650km (400 miles) south of Tokyo by mistake, do they?

The timing was particularly odd, given the relative calm that prevails over Japan-Russia relations (in contrast to Russia’s increasingly contentious relations with the US and Russia). In fact, the two governments are reportedly working on a Golden Week visit by Prime Minister Fukuda to pay his respects to President Putin, just before the latter makes the switch to Prime Minister himself, while remaining as the real focal point of the public mandate and political power.

Japan, of course, wants access to Russia’s natural resources, as well as the swelling pocketbooks of the Russian people eager for all the luxury autos and other assorted gadgets that the Toyotas and the Panasonics can sell. Russia. The Japanese government also holds out hope, or at least continues to make gestures that it does, that the Northern Territories will be returned under more favorable terms than the two smallest islands only*, i.e. the only settlement acceptable to Russia now**.

On the Russian side, it’s a buyer’s market. However, Japan is a useful hedge against China. Make no mistake, notwithstanding developments such as the settlement of border disputes and the far more recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia has never stopped seeing China as its Far East strategic threat. Contrasts in demographics (Russia, a shrinking 142 million; China, a more stable 1.3 billion) and economic profiles (Russia, resource-based economy; China, industrial economy) ensure that the fear will be around for the foreseeable future. Russia wouldn’t mind a larger Japanese footprint in Siberia, and beyond for that matter. If Russia can manage to loosen Japan-US ties in the bargain, all for the better.

Well, yesterday, EST, CNN gave us the answer. It turns out that the Tu-95 was part of a bomber squadron on its way to buzz the USS Nimitz and otherwise annoy the Americans***. It’s payback for Kosovo, it’s payback for Ukraine, Georgia, NATO expansion, IMF receivership, Jeffery Sachs… Note that Japan has a peripheral role at most with regard to perhaps a couple of these and other post-Cold War grievances.

Russia has little by way of strategic quarrels with Japan. The blip on the Japanese radar turned out to be a passing shadow cast by the geopolitical struggle that Russia, with a reinvigorated economy, has chosen to resume against an insensitive (or so it sees, not totally without justification) and aggressive (likewise) West.

Most calls for a thorough review of Japan’s national security, i.e. the Japan-US relationship, focus on China and, in a more acute sense, North Korea. After the Far East, the debate leaps half way across the globe to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. But Japan already distances itself from the US where the Palestine Question is concerned. The broader context for this is, of course, the Middle East and its fossil fuels. But the national interests of the two allies appear to be almost as dissonant where Russia is concerned.

It is time for Japanese policymakers to think hard about Russia as well. It is at least easier to contemplate than Japan’s place in the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program.

* Tarō Asō, regarded (correctly, if somewhat broadly) as a nationalist, famously suggested that Japan could take a settlement that gave back half of the land mass of the four islands. When he was Foreign Minister. And there was remarkably little outcry, all things considered. He did qualify his off-hand statement, but it did bring into question the seriousness with which even the more hawkish wing of the LDP was willing to press the issue.

** There was a brief period during the Yeltsin regime when the Russian government appeared to indicate a willingness to go beyond its interpretation of the 1956 Joint Statement. But Vladimir Putin came to power and oil prices went skyrocketed; the moment had passed.

*** Have you ever wondered why they aren’t called United Statists? USians? Just askin’.

The DPJ’s actions concerning national security issues have been disappointing. It appears to be driven mostly by electoral objectives. As a result, it ends up walking and talking like the old Socialist Party., the permanent opposition. It is most evident in Yukio Hatoyama’s response to the alleged rape of an Okinawa schoolgirl by a US Marine stationed there. He says in essence that Japan must seek a relationship on an equal footing and, for that, US military bases must leave. There appears to be no timeline, no context to his demand, such that it is. Not that the government, or the LDP for that matter, is exercising its imagination. But there are the constraints of being in charge of the status quo. If the DPJ refuses to think strategically, that is, if it continues to play the political game with anything beyond the letter of its policy manifest, it will have no recourse but to let its checks bounce left and right when it finally comes to power.

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