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At the Far Eastern end of Eurasia, a worrying détente is in the offing. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin are growing closer, at least judging by the most recent summit between the two men in Vladivostok earlier this month.
Geographically Asian and culturally European, Vladivostok is Russia’s underdeveloped gateway to the Asia-Pacific. As a site for Abe and Putin’s summit, then, the symbolism was clear. In part, the meeting was meant to soothe over a territorial impasse regarding the four Kuril Islands, a legacy of World War II that stands in the way of full Russo-Japanese rapprochement and complicates economic cooperation. But at the most recent summit, there was more in the way of words than deeds. Echoing Putin’s regional development agenda, Abe expressed his vision for Vladivostok as “a model city” for bilateral economic cooperation.
Indeed, Vladivostok is in many ways a microcosm of the Russian Far East and Russia as a whole. Founded as a military outpost in the 1870s, the city is a relic of tsarist imperialism (Vladivostok roughly means “rule the east” in Russian) and Soviet militarism. Despite its advantageous location at the intersection of three of the world’s largest economies—China, Japan, and South Korea—Russia’s outlet to the Pacific suffers systemic neglect. In fact, corruption has plagued the Russian Far East since 1991, with the past three mayors of Vladivostok charged with illicit activities.
It’s not as if Moscow doesn’t want to tap the region’s potential. After centuries of trial and error by his tsarist and Soviet predecessors, Putin rekindled efforts to develop the Far East when he took office in 1999. During his visit to the Far Eastern city of Blagoveshchensk in 2000, the rapid economic modernization he could see just across the border in China astonished the new Russian leader, generating a sense of urgency for regional development. He immediately demonstrated his enthusiasm for Asia more broadly by becoming the first Russian leader to visit North Korea the same year and successfully resolving a more-than-300-year-old territorial dispute with China in 2004. His regional ambitions culminated in his 2012 speech to the Federal Assembly in which he declared that the development of the Russian Far East would be the “vector of Russia’s development” in the twenty-first century. In December 2013, he even elevated the region’s status to “national priority for the entire twenty-first century.”
However, actual action in the region was slow to begin and then screeched to a virtual halt as Moscow’s foreign policy focus shifted to Ukraine in 2014. Indeed, although the Kremlin channeled about $21 billion into the development of Vladivostok in preparation for the APEC summit in 2012, the majority of that amount is believed to have ended up stolen by corrupt officials. Further, as international sanctions began to pinch the Russian budget in 2014, the Kremlin essentially began trading its regional initiative for short-term profits by further deepening already lopsided economic relations with China. With a $400 billion gas pipeline deal under construction as well as cutting-edge weapons, such as the Su-35 fighter jet, pouring into China, Moscow now ironically finds itself fueling Beijing’s regional ambitions with potential unintended consequences.
One such consequence is China’s growing geopolitical influence on the Russian Far East. China’s overwhelming economic sway and increasing migration to the area have stirred local fears of demographic colonization. Indeed, the 6.3 million Russians living in the Far East are a stark contrast with the more than 100 million Chinese in northeastern China. What’s more, Chinese money and labor have inundated Russia’s Asian flank, topping regional foreign direct investment with $2.5 billion in 2015. And as of 2012, approximately two million Chinese immigrants resided in the Russian Far East. Furthermore, Beijing is beginning to rekindle territorial irredentism with recent state-censored history textbooks explaining that “1.5 million square kilometers of Chinese territory in the Far East were seceded to Russia by unequal treaties” in the nineteenth century. From Moscow’s perspective, then, a burgeoning alliance with Beijing is more out of necessity than choice.
To be sure, Moscow is keenly aware of the Far East’s impending demographic crisis. In 2012, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned against “excessive expansion by bordering states” and “the formation of enclaves made up of foreign citizens,” an implicit reference to China. His statements came just days after the Kremlin unveiled plans to deploy two new nuclear submarines to Vladivostok. Despite its unmistakable concern for its gargantuan neighbor, though, Moscow is trapped by international isolation following the annexation of Crimea. The country’s Great Power aspirations require a stronger alliance with Beijing against the West, but that could come with further Chinese investment in the Russian Far East, which would only exacerbate the region’s demographic challenges.
Abe’s indefatigable pursuit of a Russo-Japanese rapprochement in recent years has therefore been a godsend for Putin. Immediately after Russia’s expulsion from G-8 following its annexation of Crimea, Abe was the only G-7 leader willing to maintain dialogue with Putin despite opposition from Washington. In fact, the latest meeting was the twelfth bilateral summit since Abe took office in December 2012. Two more meetings are already scheduled for later this year, with an official state visit by Putin to Abe’s home district of Yamaguchi right after the U.S. presidential election. During the Vladivostok summit, Abe offered a concrete plan to implement the eight points of economic cooperation that he had pitched to Putin in Sochi this past May. Abe’s economic strategy aims to pour Japanese money into critical sectors in the Russian Far East, ranging from infrastructure to energy, in hopes of accelerating rapprochement with Moscow.
For Moscow, Abe’s proposal offers the tantalizing prospect of a major breakthrough in the development of the Russian Far East. First, Japanese investment in quality infrastructure, particularly Japanese-style hospitals, could significantly improve the region’s average life span. Second, expanded Russo-Japanese energy relations would be crucial to Moscow’s competitiveness in the regional gas market, which is increasingly served by U.S. LNG exports. Third, Moscow could potentially reap these expected gains without compromising its position on the Kuril Islands dispute. In short, Abe’s economic overture is more than win-win; it could provide Moscow with the necessary economic leverage to check Beijing’s growing regional clout while retaining Russia’s sphere of influence.
Although Abe’s economic plan appears to benefit Moscow more than Tokyo, the Japanese leader has a broader geopolitical agenda behind his courtship of Putin. Abe envisions a Russo-Japanese entente against China, and Russia’s successful pivot to Asia is crucial to the regional balancing act. Abe also sees himself as a potential bridge between Russia and the West. To be sure, these are ambitious visions. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Japan will help Russia in the Far East without getting even one of the disputed four islands in return.
Yet, Abe is not deterred. In fact, he even recently acknowledged the right of Russian citizens to reside on the islands while simultaneously creating a new ministerial post specifically designed to promote Russo-Japanese economic cooperation. Tokyo, then, appears to be prepared for a potential compromise on the territorial dispute, an about-turn from its official position, held since 1956. Abe’s territorial Russian roulette is not without controversy, and Japan Inc. is mostly skeptical of the economic viability of the plans to develop Russia’s Far East.
But Tokyo's pursuit of a historic rapprochement with Moscow is already under way. And Abe’s domestic political base is now virtually unassailable due to his party’s landslide victory in the latest Upper House election. In short, Abe believes he has nothing to lose in negotiating with Putin to prevail over China. The old Russian-Japanese rivalry is thus thawing. The next U.S. president will surely have to take note.