Travels in Japan: A Modest and Hesitant Superpower

Greetings from the land of the rising sun. As I come to the end of a week-long stay in Tokyo, Japan, I thought I would put down some of my thoughts and impressions from this trip.


This week I’ve participated in several speaking platforms, interviews, and meetings with officials to discuss the Khodorkovsky case, energy relations, and Russia’s role in Asia. As I had hoped, the experience has been enormously positive, and I had the good fortune of meeting some very intelligent people, including a few of Japan’s leading commentators on Russia. However my visit also included many unexpected surprises, including a generally vague and pessimistic public perception of the government’s success in maintaining and projecting Japan’s influence in the region – almost like a political exhaustion similar to Chirac-era France of years past. During my short time here, a few things have become clear. Firstly, in regards to regional geopolitics and the complex triangulation game theory being played out between Japan, China, and Russia, to date it has been Japan that has been losing out to the interests of the other two countries, mostly due to its own tactical missteps. Not only in terms of energy diversification and military/security presence, but also the Japanese have been losing ground diplomatically in the longstanding dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands (the Northern Territories). And this is a much larger issue than many outsiders realize: I believe it is fair to say that the depth of feelings over here regarding the status of the islands is beyond almost any Westerner’s comprehension. For the Japanese, the islands are far more than just a territorial question. They are viewed as a question of national honor and pride, and given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s increasingly nationalist politics, Japan is prepared to allow this dispute to completely block any future serious political dialogue between the two countries. I’m interested for people to comment on this, because it is my view is that the Russians are fully aware of Japan’s disproportionate obsession with these islands (compared to the insignificant strategic value of the territories to Russia), and are adeptly dangling proposed resolutions as a tool to remove Japan from the equation while Russia moves in both the Koreas and in China. kurilislands.gif Lately the dispute has been as prickly as ever, showing that Vladimir Putin’s short patience for diplomacy and energy-fed confidence is projected not only toward the West, but also to the East. For example, just ahead of the G8 Summit, Putin declared Russia’s willingness to begin negotiations on the Kurils, statingWe don’t consider them contestable, as the situation arose as a result of the Second World War, and was fixed in international law, and in international documents. But we understand the motivation of our Japanese partners. We want to get rid of all thorns of the past, and we are seeking a solution to this issue together with Japan.” Yet in the very same breath, Putin had dispatched his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to fly to the Kuril Islands and re-assert Russian sovereignty, telling the news media that Russia was not prepared to give the islands up. This Kremlin doublespeak, which has become a standard characteristic of the Kremlin’s engagement with the West, did not go unnoticed among the indignant newspaper columnists in Tokyo. End result: on Wednesday the Japanese Foreign Minister issued a somewhat embarrassing warning to the Russians requesting them to abstain from “provocative actions” in the islands dispute. Aside from the Kuril Islands, Japan’s relationship with Russia has also been soured by the experience at Sakhalin, when along with Royal Dutch Shell, the companies Mitsui and Mitsubishi saw their stakes in the huge extraction project reduced and given over to Gazprom, thanks to the unlawful bullying of regulators. And in his never-ending quest to balance the powers between Medvedev at Gazprom and Sechin at Rosneft, Putin is now thought to be considering a move on Sakhalin-1, which involves Japanese companies in the Sakhalin Oil and Gas Development Corp. (SODECO). As Sakhalin-1 has a majority participation of Exxon Mobil, a company which is known as a fighter, when Oleg Mitvol gets tasked with the regulatory attack on SODECO to help push Rosneft into the project, it is most likely that the Japanese will get bumped instead of the Americans. Add this to continuing political games of bait-and-switch regarding Siberian pipeline routes to Japan’s failed overtures in the Middle East, and you have a fairly strong argument that Russia is actively undermining Japanese efforts to build energy security. As I said during one speech in Tokyo, Japan has found itself to be an indirect victim of the Yukos affair. If the regulatory, quasi-legal destruction of Yukos and theft of its assets had not been greeted with Western silence, and at times the open complicity of its financial institutions, would Russia in fact continue to use the same tactics at Sakhalin? I highly doubt it. Yukos may have been the dress rehearsal for the Kremlin methodology of forced expropriation, but it is showing that Sakhalin and Kovykta are the real opening acts. So why hasn’t Japan acted in its own defense? Perhaps there hasn’t been as strong of a reaction because of a lack of awareness. While the local media has certainly taken Moscow to task on the islands dispute, it has largely shied away from any criticism of Russia’s retreat from democracy, or comment on the perilous human rights situation there for journalists, NGOs, and political opposition. The impact on Japanese public awareness of Russian affairs has been huge. In some of the conversations I had, it was the first time that many had heard about the revolutionary changes that are happening in Russia, and many were hungry for more information and eager to take action. The geopolitical significance of Russian energy imperialism and the new model of state corporatism have yet to receive a thorough analysis among many decision makers. But even more than a lack of awareness, there seems to be an issue of the psychological approach to the problem. It was my impression that Japan’s self-perception of its role in Asia has been one of a diminishing power, caused by a combination of the massively growing footprint of China and the growing swagger of Russian energy politics. In many of my comments I have incorporated some of the principles from a well known speech of Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso. While the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity is undoubtedly a revolutionary approach to emphasizing values in foreign policy, it also underscores the modesty and hesitance of the contemporary Japanese character. Here we have the world’s second largest economy, boasting a vibrant democracy and numerous national achievements to be very proud of, yet it is a country that is not inclined to project power in disputes with Russia. Much like how Europe relied on the United States as a security blanket in the 1970s, one wonders if this policy of “subsidized sovereignty” can readily survive in the new realpolitik of the 21st century. I do hope for Japan’s sake that its unwillingness to exercise power does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.