As the 2010s draw to a close, the special character of the Sino-Russian-US great power triangle is on vivid display and hints can be detected that its nature could be changing. Whether one focuses on the hoopla accompanying summitry, on signs of each country’s adjustment in thinking regarding the bilateral relationships in the triangle, or on the dynamics of each country’s repositioning within the international system (especially in the Indo-Pacific within the purview of this journal), attention to the strategic triangle has risen to a level comparable to that in the 1970s and 1980s. In this Special Forum, we post fresh interpretations of the triangle reflecting recent thinking in four countries: the US, China, Russia, and Japan. This involves coverage of their maneuvering related to an arms race in Asia, the geo-economic framework to emerge in Eurasia, the geopolitical struggle over the Korean Peninsula, and the diplomacy of Japan’s sustained pursuit of rebalancing these great power ties.
One viewpoint is that with recent US decline under Donald Trump, China’s continued rise under Xi Jinping, and Russia’s abrupt ascendancy under Vladimir Putin, we are now witnessing the full flowering of a strategic triangle after a three-decade hiatus. Washington has lost vital ground by withdrawing from forward military positioning and alliance solidarity, while allowing bickering at home to impair its post-Cold War sole superpower status. “America First” is seen as no way to reinforce leadership in a world that demands diplomatic acuity, international statesmanship, and professional strategic planning. Beijing has gained ground with its more rapid economic development and the assertive pursuit of the “China Dream” through economic leverage, a fast military build-up, pressure on states to yield to it politically, and disguised use of sharp power to influence states directly from within. Most dramatic has been Russia’s pursuit of a sphere of influence through outright military expansionism, unvarnished repositioning in relations with the United States and China, and ruthless use of sharp power by blatantly interfering in domestic politics elsewhere. The case is strong for these three states having reemerged as the drivers in international power politics with scant expectation that they will soon relinquish this status.
An alternative viewpoint is that we stand at a moment of transition when the balance within this triangle is shifting in ways that may represent less of a transformation than many are expecting. Trump is ephemeral, shaking but not breaking the foundation of US superiority in the triangle. Xi is standing on a shaky foundation, as China’s economy slows, as other high-flying economies have done after what was viewed as an “economic miracle,” and counting on the BRI when that vision is becoming seen as a debt trap for countries that must take large loans for infrastructure. As for Putin, he is the creature of Soviet nostalgia and global fossil fuel guzzling unable to sustain his “turn to the East” as oil prices subside and as China demands greater economic integration than is compatible with Russia’s leadership in the Eurasian Economic Union or Greater Eurasia. US leadership, in this scenario, will push back on alliance splitting and sharp power intrusiveness, wielding sanctions and trade wars in a more multilateral manner than Trump has and proceeding less arbitrarily on North Korea and other great power challenges. The strategic triangle will prove significant, but US alliances and pushback will be able to blunt its impact.
The four articles that follow help to answer where this triangle is heading. They reflect on the three legs of the triangle from the perspective of one or another side or from Japan, which is on the frontlines in its great power aspirations, diplomatic activity, and geographical location with the volatile Korean Peninsula as the intersection of the triangle’s most visible clash of interests. Special attention is directed at Sino-Russian dynamics, the role of North Korea in influencing the triangle, Japan’s efforts to alter Russia’s place in the triangle, and ongoing perceptions of how US policies toward China and Russia are having an effect on changes in triangular dynamics.
A number of questions are addressed in the four articles. Is the Sino-Russian relationship an alliance? Does Russia have room to maneuver to improve relations with the US or even Japan? What is the significance of differences between Moscow and Beijing over the Korean Peninsula, regional geopolitics, or Eurasian economic integration? And how should one characterize the nature of the strategic triangle? The US focus on the military dimension of the triangle treats two against one most seriously. The Russian coverage of the triangle’s relevance for diplomacy over the Korean Peninsula points to recent Sino-Russian strains and a possibility of three-way consensus, while emphasizing overall Sino-Russian alliance coordination. Most variance is found in the new Chinese debate on the Sino-Russian relationship (ongoing problems and limits to Russian options) and the uncertain state of Sino-US relations. Finally, the Japanese focus on Russian disregard of balanced diplomacy in favor of pressure tactics raises doubts about a Sino-Russian alliance. If these articles lean to accentuating the presence of such an alliance, they also offer evidence of challenges facing this bond even minus indications of upbeat Russo-US relations.
We start with a US perspective on the triangle, stressing the military nexus between China and Russia. This nexus has grown so close that there is no hesitation to label it an alliance, allowing no room for US maneuvering to find a way to separate the two. Our second perspective comes from Russia, affirming the closeness of Sino-Russian ties, including in pursuing a resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis, while accepting the label “alliance.” That brings us to a third perspective drawn from Chinese publications, which likewise insists on the overall closeness of Sino-Russian relations, although, as in the Russian viewpoint, it indicates problems between the two. Finally, from a Japanese perspective, we cover why Russia would not distance itself from China despite the wooing of Prime Minister Abe, especially given the thinking about the United States that prevails in Moscow. Although the perspectives vary in use of the label “alliance” and in the degree of problems they discern between Moscow and Beijing, they offer no indication that US or, for that matter, Japanese pursuit of either country could cause a serious split to occur.
Stephen Blank, “Military Aspects of the Russo-Chinese Alliance: A View from the United States”
Blank argues that there is an increasingly open anti-American alliance taking shape, albeit an informal one. If Moscow keeps inventing euphemisms to disguise this, leading officials in both countries expect this relationship to deepen, including in its military dimensions. Their anti-American strategic coordination keeps occurring. For instance, on October 9, 2018, following the latest visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to North Korea, the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, China, and North Korea gathered for the first time in Moscow to discuss easing sanctions on North Korea. Summarizing the meetings, Igor Morgulov stated that “measures” should reflect “reciprocity, and parallel, synchronous and gradual steps” and emphasized that the situation on the Korean Peninsula would be settled in “accordance with the Russian-Chinese roadmap. Russia and China argue to Pyongyang’s delight that Washington must initiate concessions, formally ending the Korean War, giving security guarantees, and ceasing its threats while deferring the urgent necessity of denuclearization.” We see here visible signs of Sino-Russian (and DPRK) anti-American alliance behavior. Given the current state of Sino-American and Russo-American relations, bipolarity reminiscent of the Cold War has clearly returned to Asia.
Blank steeps his conclusions in evidence of a well-developed process of shared learning and exchange of operational and strategic concepts to enhance Sino-Russian relations. The joint air and missile defense exercises of 2017, he argues, suggest an alliance; in such exercises both sides must put their cards on the table. Naval exercises point to deepening collaboration and a vibrant bilateral military dialogue. As a result of these activities, Blank sees the US taking decisive military steps to counter this alliance—for instance, withdrawing from the INF treaty, not least due to Chinese as well as Russian missile building and Russian violations of the treaty. Likewise, the US announced a full-throated commitment to missile defenses, including exploration of the idea of space-based weapons, in response to Russian and Chinese progress in these fields. Also, Washington and US allies are substantially increasing the number of Freedom of Navigation Operations they conduct in the South China Sea. The US response now reflects triangularity.
According to Blank, this alliance relationship is the product of a generation-long process beginning in the 1990s and testifies to the importance of both states to each other. But Russia needs China more. One reason Russia acts so belligerently is the need to prove its great power bona fides to China, while it makes concessions to China that underlie China’s superiority to it in this relationship. These concessions occur in defense and economics, and these sectors are not always separated. This transfer of knowhow to China betokens its ability to extract more from this alliance than it gives back to Russia. The advent of sanctions combined with the collapse of energy prices forced Moscow into a dependence upon Chinese investment that it could not evade and opened the way to more large-scale Chinese investments in the Arctic and much greater leverage vis-a-vis Moscow, argues Blank, adding that Putin has been at war with the US and the West for over a decade. Putin’s “Greater Eurasian Partnership” dating back to 2015-16 became the dominating impulse in rhetoric, ultimately entailing Russian support for Chinese policies, not necessarily the other way around. At a time when China keeps harping on the need for ever more comprehensive cooperation in defense, economics, and politics, Russia is gradually becoming a raw materials (energy and foodstuffs) supplier to China, while progress on actually coordinating the BRI with Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership and the EEU remains largely on paper.
A major, if not the major, force driving the steady improvement of relations has been the ideological congruence of both states, i.e. their mode of self-representation and fear of liberal democracy and US values in world affairs. This stems from within the nature of the Russian and Chinese states as such, not from external US policies, Blank reasons. Moscow continues to refuse to make any real concessions to Tokyo, not least because of how that might impact its relationship to Beijing. Although Russia and China sometimes find cooperation difficult, their commitment to emphasizing the positives in the relationship easily overrides those disputes.
Russian behavior in the Arctic and Sea of Okhotsk clearly connects to Chinese behavior in the South China Sea as strategic military and legal-political precedent for China’s actions. Much like China declaring the South China Sea a no-go zone or trying to force foreign energy companies to evacuate their platforms there, Moscow, Blank says, makes similar decrees trying to bar foreign commercial vessels from the Northern Sea Route in advance of the UNCLOS decision on the Arctic. Given the increasingly overt Russo-Chinese alliance, the opportunity for them to emulate each other and forge a common legal-strategic position is very strong. Strategically, this means a joint challenge to the entire concept of freedom of navigation, a concept at the foundation of both US policy and international law for centuries. The strategic reality of a Sino-Russian alliance dominated by China that incites Russia to aggressive behavior is plainly visible, and failure to grasp that reality can only lead to repeated strategic failures in response, concludes Blank.
Georgy Toloraya, “Korea: A Bone of Contention or a Chance for Cooperation? A View from Russia”
Due to the unprecedented crisis on the Korean Peninsula in 2016-2017, China and Russia drew closer on Korean affairs and became united in opposition to the US policy of pressure and threats. Then, a détente era in Korea since 2018 gave a new boost to their cooperation—permanent channels of coordination were established, while both countries was concerned that US policy could be unpredictable and unmanageable. Now the US and China play the major role, while Russia has to maneuver both to resolve the important security issue at its doorstep and to protect its national interests, while not being in a dominant position. Ties to China are critical.
After the “turn to the East” became the backbone of Russia’s policy in the mid-2010s, Moscow has had to pay more attention to promoting its regional interests and coordination within the Russia-China-US triangle, in which Russia is the weakest partner. The Korean issue is one of the Asian problems where Russia’s position is comparatively advantageous. Increased militarization of the area, including the appearance of new US “strategic assets” (especially missile defense systems, eventually capable of undermining Russia’s missile deterrent in the East) and troops became a military concern for both China and Russia. It could lead to the militarization of Northeast China, the re-militarization of Japan, and an eventual arms race embracing all of the regional countries. To Toloraya, Moscow’s ideology of settlement through mutual concessions and compromise looks more relevant than at any time since the breakdown of the Six-Party Talks (which were in fact based on this approach). It is meaningful that Russia and China took the initiative to suggest (in the summer of 2017) a “roadmap,” further developing this mutual concessions and step-by-step approach.
Russia sees the unification of Korea as less and less probable, viewing a unified Korea dependent on a foreign country as detrimental to Russian interests. “Absorption” of the North by a pro-American South Korea could be harmful both to the Korean nation and regional security, and Russia would probably join China in opposing such a scenario. However, a possible China-dominated North Korea is also undesirable for Russia, Toloraya adds. Given this, for Russia as well as China, stability in the neighborhood might be a higher priority than denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
This seems more possible now. The detente on the Korean Peninsula since late 2017 presents a chance for Moscow to try for more elaborate triangular diplomacy with Beijing and Washington to promote a settlement on the peninsula with consideration of her own interests. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to maintain both good relations with the DPRK and cooperation with other major players, Toloraya asserts, adding that Russia should avoid being seen as a threat or a nuisance by both Koreas. As a result, Russia in 2016-2017 was reluctant to join Chinese pressure on Pyongyang—not only because it lacks the relevant leverage, but also out of concern for spoiling relations with Pyongyang. At the same time, Russia resolutely supported China’s resistance to the hostile policy on the Korean Peninsula of the US and its allies.
Toloraya asks if Russia can play its own game on the peninsula and cites some examples that signal it can; however, possible Chinese dissatisfaction (or call it jealousy) would limit the magnitude of the designs of Russian policymakers, lest it could cause frictions with China. For example, Russia had a chance to increase its clout when relations between China and North Korea were strained. North Korea took the initiative in the rapprochement with Russia in 2014-2016. The “crusade” against Russia started by the West in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis and takeover of Crimea in 2014 helped: one of the consequences was a better understanding and greater support between Russia and North Korea. North Koreans considered getting Russia’s protection (impressed by Russia’s resolute defense of the Syrian regime and policy in the case of US-backed Ukraine), even sounding out such ideas through various channels, while seeking more balance in their external support. Yet, the failure of Kim Jong-un to visit Russia for the Victory-day celebration in May 2015, where he was invited and until the last moment expected, showed the limits of rapprochement. Russia also disapproved of many aspects of North Korean behavior and had to take into account international reaction (especially that of China).
As for the nuclear problem, the differences between the positions of China and Russia to the middle of 2016 remained marginal. UNSC Resolution 2270 in response to North Korean nuclear and missile tests of January-February 2017 unexpectedly became a watershed in the Chinese attitude toward North Korean behavior, which Russia was reluctant to follow. Yet, dialogue on security in Northeast Asia—centered on issues related to Korea—was initiated, with in-depth discussions taking place every two or three months. A joint position was approved during the Putin-Xi Jinping meeting on July 4, 2017, highlighted by a roadmap, which included 3 stages.
Even as the events in 2018 took exactly the turn to which Russia had been striving for many years and implemented the first stage of the joint roadmap, including an active North Korean dialogue with the South and the US, Russia was unprepared for such a development and saw its influence helplessly dwindle. Swallowing its pride, Russia chose to follow the Chinese lead as well as increase its intellectual input in shaping the US approach to North Korea via different US-Russia channels. Cooperation with China helped Russia to implement an innovative approach: in 2018 it progressed to the degree North Korea had to agree to trilateral contacts. In September 2018 they suggested that the Security Council needed to consider reviewing sanctions in due course to encourage the DPRK and other relevant parties to move denuclearization further ahead. Yet, this appeal was strongly rejected by the US, demonstrating the depth of divisions between the major actors. At the same time, the combined Russian and Chinese impact does have some effect on US leadership, the position of which has considerably shifted to realism.
Taking into account that the US-China discussion mechanism on Korean affairs is more developed and multifaceted, the idea of trilateral US-China-Russia discussions comes to mind. In fact, such a dialogue has started on the expert level in 2017 and proved to be extremely useful. Toloraya observes how Russian policymakers noted that past mistakes were recognized by the current US administration; for example, during a recent talk at Stanford Special Representative Stephen Biegun admitted that “there were missed opportunities by both the United States and North Korea.” Calling for exchanges on an official level, Toloraya recognizes that under Trump, the US has, more or less, agreed to the need for the “action for action” principle. He asserts that Russia tries to faithfully observe the sanction regime, US diplomacy seeks Russian advice and support in respect to North Korea, the US does not see Russia as a competitor on the Korean Peninsula, and, moreover, Russia may become a counter-balance for excessive Chinese influence.
Gilbert Rozman, “The Sino-Russia-US Strategic Triangle: A View from China”
Four schools of thought can be detected in Chinese publications on Sino-Russian relations and the Sino-Russian-US triangle. One school is to double-down on the “quasi-alliance” versus the shared threat of the United States. A second is to seize the opportunity of Russia’s weakness in the triangle, especially its economic troubles, to press for economic integration as part of “One Belt, One Road” (BRI), collapsing the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) into “One Belt, One Union” (OBOU). A third school is to show sensitivity to Russian thinking, not siding fully with it in its confrontation with the US or pressuring it while reminding it of lines it should not cross. Finally, there is a fourth school that downplays the geopolitical competition and recognizes the weakness of Russia as a triangular force, while calling for a “win-win” approach to the triangle.
Chinese sources acknowledge problems in this relationship, but they give little credence to the notion that it could be put in jeopardy, resting their case not only on security and economics, but on national identity grounds too. The two sides agreed to prevent any hint of the divisions that characterized the Sino-Soviet split, while keeping the focus on their joint opposition to the US ideological threat to a just world order. The strategic triangle increasingly showed the two close partners determined to work together to weaken the other party even if in bilateral diplomacy with Washington each would proceed separately as circumstances were changing. Yet, the timetable for Beijing is much longer than for Moscow, and the areas of confrontation are much more circumscribed for Beijing. Their approaches to the US-led international system are not in sync, although they share many of the same criticisms. In addressing the aim of forging a sphere of influence, Moscow is prone to military means, while Beijing prefers economic means. There is far more talk of a win-win situation in Beijing (even if it obscures a deep, zero-sum outlook) than in Moscow. However much such differences are discernable, they offer little basis for the wishful thinking in some circles that the Sino-Russian strategic partnership is vulnerable to a US strategy to divide the two without sacrificing fundamental US national interests and values. For Chinese analysts the prospect of such US overtures or a Russian defection is hard to conceive. All four schools identified above cast doubt on any sort of “Sino-Russian split,” while diverging on what China should do in the triangular context in regard to short-term Sino-US relations.
Putin’s “turn to the East” and willingness to conjoin the EEU and BRI reinforced confidence that in trade and economic integration Russia is increasingly dependent on China with little prospect of shifting back to the West, even if its trade continues to flow mostly that way. On security, the military standoff over Ukraine as well as the priority on challenging the US in Europe and the Middle East is proof that the strategic triangle will indefinitely be skewed in favor of Sino-Russian strategic relations. Finally, assessments of Russia’s worldview since the 1990s firmly recognize an unbridgeable national identity gap with the United States, which since Putin assertively reclaimed the reins in 2012 has only widened further. Given this confidence in Russia on all three dimensions, Chinese hesitate to explore alternative outcomes in the strategic triangle and are prone to place greater demands on Russia to satisfy perceived Chinese interests.
Chinese confidence, US hesitation, and Russian bravado prevailed in recent years. Bolstering its expectations of overtaking the US economy soon, Chinese insisted that they had more leverage over the US than it had over China and that Russia, especially after its ties with the West were damaged in 2014, was highly susceptible to Chinese economic pressure (even if unwisely holding back on the integration desired by China). The situation changed in 2018 as China’s economy appeared more fragile in an economic slowdown, the US economy enjoyed a bump, and in Trump’s trade war Chinese were made aware of a level of vulnerability little anticipated. While Chinese optimism about triangular dynamics could have dampened, amid more effort to boost Sino-US economic ties, no far-reaching change could be anticipated. Chinese sought a more positive attitude from Russia on conjoining the EEU and BRI, treating the former as little more than a component of BRI while criticizing Russian obstacles to connectivity. If Sino-Russian political relations are proceeding well, they require economic relations to draw much closer in order not to fall back. Moscow has agreed in principle, but its consciousness is muddled.
Putin’s plan in June 2016 for a Greater Eurasian initiative would widen the scope, including India and Iran among others, in order to contain China’s economic superiority, one author argues. Only close Sino-Russian cooperation will achieve balance in triangular relations in the face of intensifying US pressure on both China and Russia. Readers are warned that Russia is psychologically unprepared to lose Central Asian markets or be China’s resource appendage; so it is pressuring Central Asian states to block integration with China, standing in the way of the Silk Road Economic Bloc (within BRI), striving for a broader scope for Eurasian ties to limit China’s voice, and asking China to fund such integration with its capital and increasingly superior technology based on it having successfully absorbed the fruits of the West through reform and openness, which Russia has avoided. The strategic triangle remains unbalanced in favor of the United States, which is strengthening the US-Japan-ROK alliance and putting more pressure on Russia as well as China. In response, more cooperation in areas such as aircraft and space is sought. Polarization with the US is assumed to be ongoing since the end of the Cold War. Sino-Russian ties have grown stronger but have failed to realize the destiny that Chinese clearly have in mind due to weakness in their economic dimension. Balancing requires Russia to accept what is essentially the inclusion of the EEU into the BRI. Public attitudes are cold, and while the top is hot, the bottom is cold—problems China now must overcome. The solution proposed is that the Silk Road Economic Belt break the bottleneck to boost trust and all-around, positive cooperation. All of the burden is put on Russia to accept China’s economic integration plans.
Problems in bilateral relations are recognized. First, insufficient strategic trust due to bias among some Russians, who have been influenced by the West’s “China threat theory,” is noted. Among the sources of distrust is Russian fear that a Sino-US trade deal could lead to a surge in imports of US natural gas and agricultural products at the expense of Russia. Second, enterprises lack mutual trust needed for investments, which is blamed on Russians blinded by the importance of the US market and problems. Yet, one author insists that given US all-out support for global hegemony it cannot change its posture to China and Russia, and those two cannot change their national rejuvenation strategies. The contours of the triangle are set for a long time. Compared to the Cold War, US power has relatively declined, Russia’s economic base is weaker although its natural resources and military power are still first or second in the world. China is second economically and trails the other two militarily, but its position in the triangle has been noticeably strengthened. Given problems caused by the US threatening the current order, China and Russia are obliged to respond, although Sino-Russian ties lack strategic depth and global range, readers are informed.
Another Chinese view is that politics are driving Sino-Russian relations while markets and society are driving Sino-US relations; the former cannot replace the benefits of Sino-US cooperation for a long time ahead. Thus, Beijing should keep the Sino-US relationship from turning downward, be sensitive to Russian national identity concerns, and rely on multilateralism to ease Eurasian ties. US national strength has not substantially weakened, and its gap with Russia is not narrowing but widening, altering the bilateral “balance” of strategic power with greater speed. Yet, Russia and the US are guided by strategy and values (victor mentality as the ideological basis for anti-Russian sentiments, sacred mission of a “Third Rome” combined with eroded dignity, and rejection of the West in pursuit of a unique “Eurasian civilization”), which makes it difficult for them to treat each other as equals and coexist peacefully. Feelings of shame over Russian interference in the US elections have aroused hatred that can hardly be pacified, say the authors. This has led to “anti-Russian political correctness,” parallel to the Russian “anti-American” tool to create political consensus. Given Russia’s weakness and other factors, a Sino-Russian alliance would not actually pressure the US much, particularly in reducing the hegemony of the dollar. One area for hopeful cooperation, the authors add, is security arrangements on the Korean Peninsula.
Hakamada Shigeki, “The Sino-Russian-US Triangle and Northeast Asia: A View from Japan”
The biggest reason for the stability in the Cold War was the existence of a secure framework of two dominant camps—liberal and socialist—whose framework served to suppress the main historical actors of nations, religions, and states, which had played the leading role in human history, argues Hakamada.The previously suppressed actors returned to the historical stage, giving rise to a chaotic scene.While the means used have changed with cyber space, the Internet, and warfare in outer space, the essence of security and politics has not changed in 2000 years.
Although not a lot is written in Japan specifically on the Sino-Russian-US triangle, publications on each of the three legs of the triangle and on Japan’s relations with these three countries point to a level of contention not seen since early in the Cold War, Hakamada finds. One school is known for the view that the looming China threat supersedes everything else. It leads to a dual response: keep as close as possible to the United States and do whatever might possibly work to separate Russia from China, while building up Japan’s armed forces and collective defense. This has been the dominant approach since Abe returned as prime minister in December 2012 and started wooing Putin. A second school argues that pursuing Russia is misconceived; its annexation of Crimea by force sets a precedent for Chinese actions in East Asia. By splitting with the United States and others in the G7 through a softer approach, Japan puts its standing in the West at risk. Thus, it should treat Russia and China as dual threats. A third school has been gaining ground lately as distrust has grown toward Trump over his softness toward North Korea, unilateral trade war with China, and pressure on Japan over trade and burden-sharing. It favors hedging by welcoming diplomacy with China as well as exploring options with Russia. This split into multiple schools does not mean that mainstream insistence on close alliance relations is in any jeopardy, but it does suggest that, given this foundation, other options are on the table.
A fundamental assumption of the first school, which is not shared by the second school but is by some in the third school, is that Sino-Russian relations are fragile, largely because Moscow is wary. A corollary is that Tokyo is a prime target of Moscow’s quest for balancing Beijing and pursuing multipolarity in Northeast Asia. If more effort is put into enticing Moscow, there can be a big payoff, and Tokyo has geographical, economic, and geopolitical assets sufficient for swaying Moscow, many assume. The second school draws on the clashing assumption that Sino-Russian relations are already too deep, and Japan’s means to impact them too limited, especially given the weight of the US presence, to warrant hope in wooing Putin. US unpredictability complicates judgments about the future of the strategic triangle. Setting the idiosyncratic nature of Trump’s thinking aside has become more difficult, leading to interest in the third school and to more urgency for the first school. The long-term outlook for the second school appears more favorable, however, given the likelihood that Abe’s talks with Putin will not succeed and that Tokyo and Washington will remain closely aligned versus a multitude of Xi’s challenges.
Attitudes toward Putin are unsettled, however, since he has been praised for six years as trustworthy for his personal diplomacy with Abe and his strategic thinking toward East Asia is assumed to be distinctive from his behavior in other regions. On the left and far right there is more suspicion of Putin, but on the center-right under Abe’s influence Putin continues to be given the benefit of the doubt. Assessments of Putin are, arguably, the primary factor in Japanese interpretations of the strategic triangle. Hakamada sees Putin as someone who puts himself in the position of Aleksandr III, believing that everything is determined by military power. Looking to the model of imperial Russia, Putin eyes a new Russian empire founded on military power.
The reality is that by the US and other NATO states having expanded NATO without regard for the humiliation and self-respect of a Russia defeated in the Cold War, Russia was aroused to paranoia not only toward these states. Although officially Russia has close ties to China, it is deeply fearful of rapidly strengthening economic and military ties. It would be better to refer to Sino-Russian relations as a “strategic partnership” between isolated great powers, Hakamada concludes. As Russia’s confidence grew through its annexation of Crimea and air strikes in Syria, no matter how powerful the militaries of European states and the US, they would be unable to fight given the large number of casualties that would result. North Korea cannot give up its nuclear weapons. This is the world Russia has helped to bring about; Japan should not look to it for cooperation in easing regional tensions. Although Hakamada states that Russia is alarmed about China’s strengthening military power, he concludes that Japan does not have the power to insert itself between China and Russia in order to contain China. A foreign policy approach to cooperate with Russia to contain China only makes Japanese appear to be naïve.
Trump does not think about the long-term benefits to the US of maintaining close relations with allies, which share values with the US, and being the rule maker of the international order. Nor does he think about stabilizing the overall world order through containing Russia and other autocratic and anti-democratic countries. Recently, despite the Senkaku issue and other continuing tensions in Sino-Japanese relations, the Abe administration has drawn closer to China, which the Xi administration has welcomed. This is closely related to uncertainty over the Trump administration. At a time of sharp Sino-US confrontation, Abe is demonstrating an inclination to draw closer not only to Russia but also to China. In the background is not only the China threat but also Trump’s inconsistency, complicating reasoning about the strategic triangle.
For six years upbeat coverage of Abe’s wooing of Putin has sustained the optimistic school that Japan can both have a close alliance with Washington and a breakthrough with Russia helpful in limiting Sino-Russian relations. Despite the worsened Russo-US relationship since March 2014, this view remained widespread. Yet, growing pessimism aroused by Russian conditions in the path of a territorial agreement and peace treaty has made Japanese hesitant to offend China and realize the fundamental divide between Russia and the US. Meanwhile, a third viewpoint has also gained ground in the shadow of the unreliability of Trump’s attitudes toward alliances, trade, and North Korea. The strategic triangle appears more uncertain, leading Abe to seek better relations with China as well as to keep going in his pursuit of Russia. Even so, the Japan-US alliance remains the foundation of his strategy, as US-Russian relations only grow more troubled and Japan-US military cooperation against China is likely to grow more intense. The picture has been muddled, but the outcome seems clear.
Japan has misjudged the Sino-Russian-US triangle by (1) being over-optimistic about Russia’s strategic thinking rather than recognizing its focus on military power and on Sino-Russian relations, (2) underestimating the degree to which US and European relations with Russia limit Japan’s room to maneuver, and (3) anticipating a breakthrough in Japan-Russia relations, which is unlikely to occur. In East Asia, the China and US factors have great bearing on Japan-Russia ties, Hakamada asserts.
Through peace treaty talks with Japan, Russia has recently stressed the question of Aegis Ashore deployment and US bases in Japan. More than earlier, Russia has taken a tough stance on the Japan-US alliance treaty. Thus, it does not share Japan’s naivete about the prospects for negotiations or for altering the strategic triangle and only is using Japan-Russia talks for specific ends in economics with China and in geopolitics with the United States. The issues of US bases and missile cooperation between Japan and the US became the best pretexts for Russia rejecting the transfer of territory. The Putin administration often makes statements to the effect that Japan is subordinate to the United States and is not an independent country. Having agreed to the demarcation of border with China—due to a lack of trust rather than the existence of trustworthy relations with China—Russia’s appeal for Japan to boost ties in order to forge trust only pretends that this is the pathway to a territorial agreement, concludes Hakamada.