Over the past few years we've been watching a delicate dance emerging between Russia, India, China, Japan, and the USA in the western Pacific, and increasingly it looks like no one there wants to dance with Obama, (after all, look where it got Merkel). The part of the dance that has most interested me is the emerging balance-of-power politics that Mr. Putin has been engaging in. On the one hand, there has been a great deal of "courting" of Beijing, in an effort to capitalize on the Chinese "silk road" project, and to spin this off into infrastructure development of Siberia's enormous resources. This has been matched by Chinese investments there to develop the energy resources of the region.
But we've also seen Mr. Putin courting Tokyo, and Tokyo responding in kind. And the interests are rather clear: Moscow needs Tokyo and its money to offset, and balance, growing Chinese influence in the region. It's a risky policy to some degree because Russia is, in effect, playing the two oriental nemeses off against each other in an effort to maintain its sovereignty over the region. It will work, but only as long as Japan remains committed to its rearmament program, which brings us to Tokyo and to Mr. Abe. Japan likewise has its own overarching interests in striking a deal with Russia, and the first of these is that it cannot allow any undue Chinese influence in Siberia any more than Russia can, and secondly, development of Russian energy resources in the region would give Japan a much more secure energy source than its current reliance on the Middle East. Energy is at the center of the "Siberian Three Power Waltz" we see taking place.
The trouble is, Japan and Russia still have not concluded any official treaty of peace ending World War Two. And at the center of this dilemma are the Kuril Islands, which the Soviet Union seized after its 1945 declaration of war on Japan, and which Japan, with one exception, has not recognized, according to this article shared by Mr. M.M.:
What caught my eye here were these paragraphs:
In 1956, Moscow and Tokyo reestablished diplomatic relations and said in a joint declaration that a peace treaty would be prepared. The text of the declaration to reestablish relations suggested that the USSR give Habomai and Shikotan Islands to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. This is the document that Putin referred to at the G20 summit.
Despite the fact that in 1956 the two chambers of the Japanese Parliament ratified the declaration, the Japanese side, as was recently underlined by Putin, refused to implement it. After a diplomatic scandal in 1960, the Japanese side stated that it would “relentlessly pursue” the return of all the islands. Since then, the dialogue was interrupted.
And then, towards the end of the article, these:
If this shift happens then there could be a number of possible solutions, says Gudev. One of them is so-called deferred sovereignty. This means that the islands would come under the jurisdiction of Japan in 50 or even 100 years. A possible option is that Japan be given only the land without the surrounding waters, the expert added.
Given the fact, that currently the Kurils make the Sea of Okhotsk an inland sea of Russia, the parties could also agree to restrict navigation in the area to Russian and Japanese ships. Russia would demand that no military infrastructure be built there. Herein lies the problem. To get the Japanese to close the U.S. military base on Okinawa is almost impossible, Asia Times military analyst Grant Newsham wrote in a column (http://atimes.com/2015/10/us-military-bases-on-okinawa-still-an-essential-deterrent/).
“Okinawa is a perfect place from which to deploy and conduct a range of military operations to counter an aggressor or someone seeking to upset long established rules regarding freedom of navigation and flight, and even international boundaries,” Newsham wrote.
A potential American desire to have a base close to Russian waters may be an obstacle in the settlement of the dispute. However, there is a possibility that the parties will announce a compromise on the Kuril Islands during the state visit of Putin to Japan in December.
Note that the implied "fly in the ointment" is the USSA and its implied desire for more military bases in the northern Pacific to encircle Russia and China. And that implies the other fly in the ointment is China itself. But for Russia and Japan, the issue needs to be resolved if Russo-Japanese plans, and Japanese investment in Siberia, is to proceed. The article hints that a compromise might be in the works by the time of Mr. Putin's visit to Japan this December. In this respect, the article mentions "deferred sovereignty" and clauses which would prohibit Japanese militarization of the islands. And this, I suspect, is what might be in the works and probably already being discussed behind closed doors.
But there's a high octane speculation to consider here: while Russia views the USSA as its principal problem, and hence, cannot view the "Pacific pivot" in any other way than an attempt to complete the "encirclement" of Russia, similarly it has to take a long range view of China's growing economic and military power. After all, the whole point of courting Tokyo is precisely to have another counterpoise to Chinese power in the region, and a counterpoise to Washington which clearly views Russia as "threat number 1 1/2." And this means that, in some sense, Russia might view Mr. Abe's rearmament program as a component of that counter-poise, and be willing - just as a very remote possibility - to include clauses in whatever settlement finally emerges over the Kuril islands a provision to allow Japanese basing on the islands either with Russian approval, or co-basing rights under a deferred sovereignty arrangement. And as the matter is ultimately a matter for Japan and Russia to settle, there's not much Washington or Beijing can do about it.
Whether this remote possibility happens or not remains to be seen, but I strongly suspect that both Russia and Japan will have to move on the issue, since not moving only plays into Beijing's and Washington's hands. This is one of those cases, however, where your guess is as good as anyone else's.
See you on the flip side...