The transition of international politics of values to geopolitics turns the world increasingly more unstable. During the Cold War, the cohesion of liberal democracies was relatively strong. However, in the New Cold War against Russia and China, the democratic alliance does not necessarily act in solidarity. This is typically seen in quibbles by Europeans and Americans that Japanese are too preoccupied with China, but pay not much attention to Russia. Meanwhile, Japanese often complain that Europeans and Americans are not well-aware of China’s dangerous ambition associated with the Belt and Road Initiative. Historically, there was a similar example, which was the relationship between Britain and white dominions of the British Commonwealth during World War II. There are some geopolitical analogies of revisionist powers between Nazi Germany and Russia, and also the Imperial Japan and China.Likewise, we can regard the British homeland as NATO nations, and the Australian Dominion as Japan today.
The British Commonwealth in the prewar era was more closely associated with British imperialism than the Commonwealth of Nations today. Through World War I, Britain’s white dominions had grown more important actor on the global stage, and they were admitted domestic and diplomatic autonomy, while maintaining special bonds with Britain to bolster the Empire, based on common socio-cultural heritage of the Anglo Saxon and loyalty to the British crown. However, when World War II broke out and geopolitics grew more important, the cohesion of the Commonwealth was critically tested. While Britain gave priority to defeat Germany, Pacific dominions of Australia and New Zealand faced an increasing threat of Japan, particularly after the fall of Singapore. Some cities, notably Darwin, were hit by Japanese air raids repeatedly. In other dominion like South Africa, Afrikaners even defied the British rule, and explored to align with Germany. History tells us that the world order of geopolitics is so fragile, and therefore, it is critical to revitalize the alliance of liberal democracies to manage worldwide challenges by revisionist powers.
In terms of present day security context, NATO nations and Japan have different priorities. However, unlike Nazi Germany and the Imperial Japan, Russia and China are potential geopolitical rivals each other, as they share long borders in the Far East, and compete for superiority in Central Asia. Actually, they had territorial clashes in the Cold War era, over the Damansky Island on the Usiri River in the east and Tielieketi in Xinjian Uyghur in the west, though both of them confronted with America. Their mutual distrust has not been wiped out. Therefore, Japanese policymakers need to draw more attention from NATO nations to the Russo-Chinese rivalry in the Far East, in order to fill the gap of strategic interests and scopes, between Atlantic and Pacific democracies. There is no doubt that Europeans and Americans are more keenly aware of Russia than Japanese, but their focuses are disproportionately concentrated on her actions in Europe and the Middle East, particularly, military threats in the Baltic, annexation of Crimea, sponsorship to Assad in Syria, close alignment with Iran, and so forth. However, these Russian actions are not separated from, but correlated with those in East Asia.
Having mentioned strategic gaps between Atlantic and Pacific democracies, let me talk about Russo-Chinese geopolitical partnership and rivalry. Though Russia and China share common interests to pursue a more multipolar world against Western superiority, their geostrategic goals are not necessarily congruent over the Far East and Central Asia. Globally, while Russia wants to overturn the liberal world order, China has been already incorporated into the global economy, as shown in her WTO membership and numerous subcontractors to Western businesses in manufacturing. Meanwhile, Russia worries about the growing Chinese economic presence in Central Asia and the Far East. In Central Asia, China accommodates Russian interests in the Belt and Road Initiative. But due to critical concern with the growing instability in Central Asia and Afghanistan, China is boosting security engagement in the region, which could edge out Russian military influence in the future. In the Far Eastern Siberia, the Sino-Russian partnership and rivalry is more complicated. It is a strategic imperative for Putin’s Russia to proceed economic development plans in the sparsely populated and underdeveloped region, in order to solidify the sovereign rule there. For this objective, Russia hosts Chinese investments in energy resource and infrastructure in the Far East. Despite friendly personal relations between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, local governments are critically alarmed at the growing influence of Chinese business and gangsters. Unlike Central Asia, the clash of the two major powers arises in the Russian homeland in the Far East. (“Cooperation and Competition: Russia and China in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic”; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; February 28, 2018). In view of such geopolitical backgrounds, Euro-Atlantic nations cannot dismiss security impacts of Putin’s pivot to Asia.
Beyond Russo-Chinese geopolitics, there are some points in the Far Eastern Siberia that deserve attention from Euro-Atlantic democracies. Komsomolsk-on-Amur is the center of Russian aerospace and defense industry, because huge air space of this region is more advantageous to test fighter jets and missiles than congested air space of European parts. Also, Putin started to build Vostochny Cosmodrome in 2011, which is already in use now. Vast Siberian taiga is critically endangered by illegal Chinese loggers, and it is important for the global environment as much as tropical rain forests in the Amazon and the rest of the world. Further to the east, the Bering Strait will be a strategic place between the United States and Russia, in an era of Arctic navigation. Historically, Asian horse riders like Huns, Pannonian Avars, and Mongolians invaded Europe through the Eurasian Steppe that stretches from northern China to Romania and Hungary. Therefore, the new age of geopolitics does not necessarily imply the age of myopic localism. Pacific and Atlantic democracies can fill perception gaps, if both sides understand the link of their primary threats.
On the other hand, Japan needs to reconsider her handling of Russo-Chinese geopolitics. There is no denying that Japan needs assurance of regional power balance in an age of America First populism in the United States. But that does not mean that Japan should make a loophole in the democratic alliance. As seen in the Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU, it is Japan’s vital interest to maintain the liberal world order in the absence of American leadership under the Trump administration. However, Japan has been hollowing Western sanctions against repetitive Russian transgression like the invasion of Crimea, the nerve gas attack against Sergei Skripal, and the sponsorship to the Assad regime in Syria that continually uses chemical weapons against unarmed civilians. Those “independent” actions simply pose the risk of isolation within western democracies to Japan, while she does not have powerful and reliable partners in Asia for her own national survival. More importantly, savage competition of geopolitics makes Japan’s position in the world increasingly vulnerable and fragile (“A New Cold War With Russia Forces Japan to Choose Sides”; Diplomat; April 23, 2018). Nationalists may feel proud of a Japan that is totally “independent” from any regional powers, including China, Russia, and even America, as she was in the prewar era. But Russo-Chinese geopolitics is too big for Japan to handle alone. This is clearly shown in Putin’s blunt comment that Russia had no intention of returning the disputed Kuril islands, because Japan is in alliance with the United States. Remember, prewar Japan was not proudly independent as nationalists argue, but forcefully cut off from the alliance with Britain.