Russia Feints at Japan With an Eye on China

The Wall Street Journal notes recent actions by Russia to secure the Kuril Islands, which were seized from Japan at the end of World War Two.

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 million 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.

But these apparent moves against Japan may in large part be feints, providing political cover for steps taken to guard against future Chinese encroachment in the Russian far east:

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.

Japan has described Russia’s naval deployments as “very deplorable”, and recalled its ambassador from Moscow last year after Russian President Medvedev visited the islands. Nevertheless, it is reorienting its defence posture away from the old post-war dispute and towards China. As a New York Times article featured yesterday on China Digital Times described, Tokyo’s military focus has shifted southwards:

Japan’s new national defense guidelines scrapped the cold war-era strategy of amassing land forces on the northern island of Hokkaido, where they were dug in against a Soviet invasion, in favor of building a more mobile force focused on defending its islands and vast seas in the south. To do this, Japan will strengthen its sea and air forces by adding submarines and helicopter-carrying ships that resemble small aircraft carriers, acquiring next-generation fighter planes and creating a new amphibious infantry unit that Tokyo says would be used to thwart an invasion of outlying islands.

The days since that article’s publication have seen another brush between the Air Self-Defence Force and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. From Japan Security Watch:

At noon on March 2nd, two Chinese Y-8 naval airplanes were detected 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Senkaku islands, the closest ever approach by Chinese airplanes to the islands, according to the Ministry of Defense’s Joint Staff Office.

The Air Self-Defense Force scrambled F-15J fighters to intercept the two Chinese planes, an “intelligence airplane and antisubmarine patrol airplane”.

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