Courtesy Reuters Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Kremlin in Moscow, April 2013.

Gang of Two

Russia and Japan Make a Play for the Pacific

On November 2, Russia and Japan held their first-ever “two plus two” meeting, which brought together their respective foreign and defense ministers in Tokyo to discuss security cooperation. The meeting grabbed few headlines, but was far from routine: such gatherings are typically reserved for close allies, and for most of their modern history, Moscow and Tokyo have been anything but.

Now, however, the two countries find themselves linked by a shared predicament in the Asia-Pacific. Both are secondary players in a region overshadowed by an increasingly assertive China, which has not hesitated to push against the boundaries of its neighbors. New ties between Russia and Japan would mark not only a breakthrough in their relations but also a significant shift in Northeast Asia’s political dynamic. Since the 1950s, U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea have dominated regional security. Russia and China thawed their frosty relationship in the 1990s and signed a friendship treaty in 2001, but China’s rise has increased tensions in every regional relationship.

To be sure, Russia and Japan are not natural security partners. In the twentieth century, they fought two wars against each other, first in 1904­­–05, and again in 1945. Japan seized territory from Russia in the first; Russia seized territory from Japan in the second. In the following decades, the two countries largely kept their diplomatic distance, though trade between them blossomed in the 2000s.

Yet there have been many small, albeit largely unsuccessful, attempts to improve bilateral relations over the past 20 years. These took the form of efforts to resolve a territorial dispute over what Tokyo calls its Northern Territories: three islands -- Etorofu (Iturup in Russian), Kunashiri, and Shikotan -- and a group of islets, the Habomais, which the Soviet Union took from Japan in 1945. The disputed islands lie at the southern tip of the Kuril Islands, which extend from Japan’s northernmost territory of Hokkaido to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The dispute is one of the main reasons that Russia and Japan have

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