Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin early this December in Yamaguchi prefecture, Abe’s home constituency(“Abe to Meet Putin in December”; Sankei Shimbun; September 1, 2016). Both leaders will talk about the bilateral peace treaty of World War II, the Kuril Island territorial dispute, and bilateral economic cooperation in the Russian Far East. Some people in Japan argue that Abe seize this opportunity to split the Russo-Chinese axis, in order to manage the world of uncertainties. However, I would insist that Japan not run such a risk to jeopardize the Western alliance, and leave the job to India instead. Let me explain it below.
First, it is necessary to mention the Russo-Chinese axis. Superficially, both great powers are allies against the West, notably the American world order. However, the Russian Far East is sparsely inhabited, thus, hugely populated China across the border is a potential national security threat. There are only 4.3 million people in the Russian Far East border area, including the Amur oblast, Primorsky Krai, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, and Khabarovsk Krai. On the other hand, the Chinese Northeast overwhelms the neighbor with the population of 109 million (“Russia, China and the Far East Question”; Diplomat; January 20, 2016). In addition to such a state-to-state level threat, Snakehead criminal gangs and illegal loggers from China pose threats to civil and environmental security. In view of Russia’s hidden distrust to China, it is understandable that some Japanese talk of developing a strategic partnership with the Kremlin in order to split both countries to check the threat of the PLA.
However, I would argue that the forthcoming summit should focus on bilateral issues such as the peace treaty and the Kuril dispute. Japan is at the heart of the Western alliance, and therefore, it is not in a good position to get involved in the Russo-Chinese power game. Rather, Americans and Europeans would simply see it suspiciously whether Japan wanted to “Make Russia Great Again”, when tensions over the Baltic and Crimea continue. Just as Japan feels uncomfortable with European appeasement for China, Europe does so with Japanese appeasement for Russia. The notable case of European appeasement is the Anglo-Chinese nuclear deal led by Chancellor of the Exchequer-then George Osborne, which raised critical concerns with Chinese espionage on Britain among the British national security community. Also, Japan and the United States were severely dismayed with such a controversial agreement.
However, current Prime Minister Theresa May said that she would reconsider the deal, in order to weaken Chinese influence on nuclear plants at Hinkley Point and Bradwell (“UK's Theresa May to review security risks of Chinese-funded nuclear deal”; Reuters; September 4, 2016). As the Home Secretary in the Cameron cabinet, May raised national security concerns with the nuclear deal, along with Downing Street Chief of Staff Nick Timothy and MI5 (“Hinkley Point: Theresa May's China calculus”; BBC News; 31 July 2016). May’s action will deter penetration of PLA influence in Europe through China General Nuclear. Japan should act accordingly on Russia.
Meanwhile, India is in a very good position to intervene in the Russo-Chinese power game. None of Western nations raise eyebrows at close Russo-Indian defense cooperation to check China, like the FGFA stealth fighter project for India. Historically, India had close ties with the Soviet Union to rival against pro-Chinese Pakistan. India imported numerous Soviet weapons, such as MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-27, and MiG-29 fighters. After the Cold War, India still deploys Russian weapons, as typically seen in Su-30MKI, which is built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited under the license from Russia. Despite such strong and enduring relations with Russia since the Soviet era, India had kept nonalignment foreign policy, and never joined the Soviet bloc in history.
On the other hand, India had deepened military ties with the West during the Cold War era, and those relations are still developing in this century. India bought Mirage 2000 from France in the past, and during the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971, the Indian Navy deployed the Vikrant, which was a second hand aircraft carrier from Britain. After 9-11 terrorist attacks, India’s strategic partnership with the United States develops rapidly, as typically seen in the nuclear deal between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush. Under the Obama administration, this security cooperation has developed furthermore to invite Japan to the Malabar joint naval exercise (“US, Japan, and India Kick off 2016 Malabar Exercise”; Diplomat; June 12, 2016), in order to deter Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea (“India, Japan Call on China not to Use Force in South China Sea Disputes”; Diplomat; June 15, 2016).
India has been an independent actor in the great power rivalries, and its close relationship with Russia will not change geopolitical balances dramatically. For the West, India is a friendly nation and prospective market. Also, the West balances this country and Pakistan in the War on Terror in Afghanistan, since the latter is frequently unreliable. In view of such close relations with both Russia and the West, India is more fit to the role of splitting the Russo-Chinese axis. For this objective, both Japan and the United States must deepen foreign policy partnership with India, and explore common understandings in Asian security with them. Also, Abe should focus on bilateral issues when he meets Putin this December, in order to avoid unnecessary frictions with America and Europe.