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President Xi Jinping’s travel to the Middle East

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Historically, the Silk Road was established during the Han dynasty, between 206 B.C and 220 A.D., after the long Chinese exploration of Southern and Western Asia which had started at least two thousand years before.

As the original myth of Eurasia’s foundation has it, it was in those areas – among nomadic and warring populations – that the Son of Heaven became, for the first time, a shepherd of sheep flocks, and escaped the wild beasts which wanted to kill him and then devour the whole Han dinasty.

President Xi Jinping, the new Son of Heaven, embodying positive forces both at political and mythical levels, followed again the Silk Road and hence returned to the Middle East, by visiting Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

This was meant to rebuild the original strategic projection of China’s First Red Empire – hence to make China regain its ancient role based on the philosophical principle of “All under Heaven”.

The visit to the three Middle East countries was paid by the CCP Secretary on January 19-22, 2016, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the mutual recognition between China and the Arab League.

Until 2015 Saudi Arabia was the most important China’s crude oil supplier – a position currently held by Russia as primary seller.

The travel to these three Arab and Islamic countries is the first visit paid by the CCP Secretary in 2016 and this makes us understand the special importance that Xi Jinping and his China attaches to the commercial, political and strategic relationship between China and Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

As is well-known, Xi Jinping’ strategic project is the new Silk Road, which he called “One Belt One Road”.

Xi Jinping’s project was made public in October 2013. It is divided into a maritime part and a land part, which will both connect China with Central and Western Asia, the Middle East and finally Europe.

To put it in a metaphor of the Taoist sages – and Mao Zedong was so – the void (of power) of the United States and of the European Union itself, completely devoid of a real foreign policy, will be “filled” by a link with China and Eurasia on the part of the Sunni and Shi’ite Islamic world.

In Asia, where it originates, the new Silk Road will be connected with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and with the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (BCIM).

After the globalization which was an Americanization, the Chinese-style globalization will prevail, which will unite all the losers of the first globalization by tying them at first to Eurasia and later to China itself.

Since the diplomatic recognition between Russia and Saudi Arabia in 1990, trade has increased by 230 times, up to 70 billion US dollars in 2014.

Currently, in Saudi Arabia, 160 Chinese companies operate not only in the oil sector but also in the logistics, transport and electronics sectors.

China wants to support the Arab world with a stimulus to the domestic production differentiation and the reduction of those economies’ oil dependence.

For China, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is the strategic link with the Sunni country closest to the United States which, however, does not want to be tied hand and foot to the United States.

Saudi Arabia has every interest in dealing with China so as to avoid having only North America as counterpart – a relationship and a situation which, devoid of any counterbalance, would obviously be less favourable to Saudi Arabia.

The most important project binding China and Saudi Arabia is the Yarseef refinery which is worth 10 billion US dollars, 62.5% of which funded by the Chinese Sinopec.

President Xi Jinping has defined Yanbu – the Red Sea port where the Yarseef refinery is located – as the regional point of arrival of the Silk Road and, at the same time, the axis of the new Saudi industrialization.

Another essential aspect of Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia is the idea of establishing, by 2017, a Free Trade Zone together with the Gulf Cooperation Council, another component of the “Silk Road” which, in these areas, connects its maritime way and its land stretch.

Later, in his visit to Egypt, the CCP Secretary followed up the themes already developed during the visit paid by the Egyptian President, Al Sisi, to Beijing in December 2014.

The idea is to implement a “comprehensive strategic partnership” based on 15 major projects, to the tune of 15 billion US dollars.

These projects are related to infrastructure and transport, considering that Cairo and the Egyptian coast will be the Mediterranean point of arrival of the new maritime Silk Road.

Other investments in the “comprehensive strategic partnership” regard the Egyptian energy sector while, during Xi Jinping’s visit, additional 21 new investment projects were defined with an additional soft loan to this country equal to 1.7 billion US dollars, managed by some Egyptian banks.

A geopolitical level, Xi Jinping’s attention is mainly focused on the Egyptian and Shi’ite region, with a probable mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia which has materialized during the Chinese leader’s visit.

This means that China fears the expansionism of the Isis/Daesh “Caliphate” and, above all, the return of hundreds of Uighur foreign fighters living in Xingkiang.

At diplomatic – and probably at operational – level, China has supported Egypt in its fight against the Qaedist jihadist area, at first, and later against the Caliphate jihadist aera in the Sinai. It will certainly distribute its investments across the Middle East, based on the each country’s ability to fight against the jihad.

If Europe and the West will not be able to support the new autonomous development of the Middle East – and we can currently perceive all their limits in this regard – this region will become – between Russia and China – the Southern and maritime part of Eurasia.

This will be the new Sino-Russian Heartland which will hegemonize the Mediterranean region and much of the “great European plain”, as the French philosopher Raymond Aron called it.

Another significant geopolitical sign is that Xi Jinping urged Al Sisi’s Egypt to participate, as observer, in the next G20 Summit to be held in Beijing next September.

The last Middle East country visited by the Chinese leader, was the Shi’ite and not Arab nation of Iran.

Xi Jinping was the first leader of a world power to visit Iran after the lifting of sanctions, to which the Chinese and Russian activity within the P5+1 contributed significantly.

It is a very important symbolic fact.

Certainly China has never taken the sanctions against Iran into account. In fact, as early as 2014, China has replaced Germany as first business partner of the Shi’ite country, with a bilateral turnover exceeding 70 billion US dollars.

Obviously Xi Jimping came to preserve the Chinese position reached in Iran, but also to support Iran in its strategic differentiating from Europe and NATO, as demonstrated by the open support he showed during some interviews in Iran for the presence of Shi’ite forces in Syria.

Unlike many naïve Western experts and the even more childish leaders of a gutless Europe believe, the Syrian issue is not the fight against a “tyrant” such as Bashar al-Assad so as to restore a very unlikely “democracy”.

In the Middle East democracy is imposed to make a country strategically “viable”, which means devoid of reactions to the operations carried out by other players on the field.

Therefore the real Syrian issue is the fight against those hegemonizing the Greater Middle East in the future.

It may be Turkey, which wants to conquer Syria’s vast Sunni area for its mad neo-Ottoman dream.

Or the Russian Federation along with Iran, which will annex the Shi’ite and Alawite Syria to the corridor stretching from Ukraine to the coast towards the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

Or finally Saudi Arabia, which wants to manage its own “Sunni and Wahhabi International” so as to dominate the whole Middle East region and its oil, without the constraints of OPEC, which is now a residual cartel.

Xi Jinping, however, proposes to Iran a greater Chinese presence in the local banking and financial sector, the building of seven fast railway lines to be connected, in the future, with the networks already existing in China and, of course, a greater Chinese presence in the Iranian oil and gas sector.

According to Chinese analysts, trade between China and Iran is expected to increase tenfold, up to reaching 700 billions a year by 2017.

Hence, considering all the actions undertaken in the three Middle East countries he visited late January, the core of Xi Jinping’s operation is the creation of a joint Free Trade Zone between the three countries with China’s support – a topic we have already raised at the beginning of this article.

This is a move intended to rebalance the free trade agreement between the United States and other 11 Pacific countries, as well as to fill Western Europe’s “void” throughout the Middle East.

China has reached the free trade agreement with all the six Persian Gulf countries, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman.

China wants to put enemy countries together so as to mediate in a credible way.

The agreement is supposed to be signed by the end of 2016.

Hence the “void” of the United States and of an ever weaker and inward-looking West, obsessed by the idea of “exporting democracy” or by a naïve, self-defeating and self-destructive “geopolitics of values”, is “filled” by a China exporting economic support, political influence and credible skills and abilities to mediate between all regional players.

China’s proposed One Belt One Road project, which is the geopolitical matrix of all Chinese operations in the Middle East, stems from the current leadership’s perception of a now unrenounceable geoeconomic power projection.

It also stems from China’s feeling to be geographically surrounded by confined and enclosed spaces, mountains and deserts which must be overcome so as to avoid the Middle Kingdom – which has a much greater production potential than its territory expresses – remaining blocked.

This is the contemporary version of the structural crisis between the evolution of production ratios and the growth of productive forces, which has always been fatal to Marxism applied in practice.

It is worth recalling that the “productive forces” are science and technology with their applications to the production process, namely the whole organization of work, while “the development of production ratios” regards the relations established by those participating in productive work, including those which are outside the actual production process, such as owners and shareholders.

Hence if the development of productive forces is expanded beyond a certain limit, its expansion is made at the expense of production ratios, as an increasing share of manpower is replaced or marginalized by new technologies.

It was the problem Stalin had to face shortly before his death. It was Mao’s demon from the Great Leap Forward onwards and it is currently the concept underlying the One Belt One Road project.

In other words, for Xi Jinping the issue lies in projecting productive forces outside China’s land and sea borders, so as to prevent its internal production ratios from being distorted up to jeopardizing the State and the Party.

Obviously the project of the new Silk Road is also a way for ensuring the security of the first Chinese loop, namely Central Asia’s, and freeing from dangerous opponents the Chinese secondary loop, stretching from the Greater Middle East to Western Europe.

The two geoeconomic processes to ensure security regard both the Earth and the Sea, two entities which, in the Western tradition synthesized by the philosopher Carl Schmitt, tend to be two opposing entities.

Hobbes’ Leviathan, the biblical sea monster epitomizing the future British thalassocracy, is opposed by Behemoth, the terrestrial State which enslaves its citizens.

It is the constant plot of Western political thought.

Furthermore the One Belt One Road project involves the Russian Federation which, after the different globalization to which the USSR and post-Maoist China were subjected, de facto unites the two countries that had radically changed the relationship between productive forces and production ratios in an anti-capitalist way.

The One Belt One Road line, or rather lines, starts from Xi’an – the former capital of 13 dynasties, where there is the Mausoleum of the Qin Emperor Shi Huang, the first unifier of China, and his famous “terracotta warriors”.

It must never be forgotten that the Chinese universe, today as in its earliest stages, lives on symbols it uses in a way we can define apotropaic both for the unity of “all-under Heaven” and against external enemies.

From Xi’an – with connections to Beijing, Zhanjiang and Shanghai – the terrestrial route reaches up to Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, and hence the area characterized by a strong Islamic presence where the Turkmen arrived following their expansion eastwards, which was also a return to the origins.

The previously mentioned city of Zhanjiang, the old Fort Bayard until 1946, is the capital city of the Guangdong Province and a very active port, the future geopolitical axis of the new China-led “Indochinese Union”, which will obviously be very different from the one favored by French occupiers from 1899 until 1946.

From Urumqi, the Silk Road terrestrial route reaches Almaty, the old Alma-Ata of the Soviet era, which is the oldest and most populous city of Kazakhstan, the former capital city until 1993.

The new “Silk Road” will then directly reach Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s oil axis, up to Tehran.

The reasons for the particular interest currently shown by China in Shi’ite Iran are the following: it is an oil supplier needed for its continued development; it is an anti-jihadist rampart, as we can currently see in the role played by Iran’s paramilitary forces in Syria; for the China of the new Silk Road, it is the point of control over the whole region of the Greater Middle East.

China will never lift a finger against Saudi Arabia, which is peripheral compared to its new strategic axis, but it will play an essential role in stabilizing the infra-Islamic clash, which China sees as a direct threat to its oil and geopolitical interests.

A Middle East in flames destabilizes the Islamist Uighur minorities, blocks the large commercial networks being created and devastates the economies of New China’s primary buyers.

From Bishkek there will be a line connecting the terrestrial Silk Road with the maritime one. A transport line will link the Kirghizistan capital city to Gwadar, the Pakistani port located in the Balochistan province, an area already acquired by China.

Gwadar is China’s strategic sentinel toward the Strait of Hormuz.

From Tehran the One Road will reach directly Istanbul and will then deviate – again on a land route – towards Moscow, the real military and political pivot of current China vis-à-vis the Eurasian peninsula.

All “Eurasist” theories and approaches which currently inspire Russia imply substantial unity between China and Russia, with a view to preserving Eurasia and its hegemony over current Europe.

This is the theoretical and operational foundation of Russia’s presence in Syria.

In Syria, Russia wants: a) to block any kind of US and its allies’ hegemony in the Middle East; b) to ensure its presence in the Mediterranean region, which will become a military, economic and political presence; c) to impose its hegemony over an area where there are no longer global players, with the gradual withdrawal of the United States and NATO.

The very recent Munich agreement, regardless of its duration, is the reaffirmation and certification of the special role played by Russia in the region, while temporarily enabling the United States and its allies to save face.

From Moscow, the new Silk Road will reach Rotterdam and, southwards, up to Venice, the city which, thanks to Marco Polo, is associated with the West’s new discovery of China.

As already seen, the Chinese maritime Silk Road will start from Zhangjian, and will reach Jakarta, through Kuala Lumpur, in the Straits of Malacca which are the jugular vein of international maritime trade. It will then head to Colombo, in the ancient island of Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – and northwards to Kolkata, the ancient Calcutta.

From both Eastern ports, the maritime Silk Road will reach Nairobi and then, through the Straits of Bab el Mandeb, it will reach the Suez Canal up to Athens.

Hence this is the meaning of Xi Jinping’s current visit to Cairo, the Eastern closing point of the maritime Silk Road and the military closure of the Middle East instability area.

From Athens to Venice, the two Belts will reconnect.

A “Taoist” geopolitical project: the two natural opposites oppose and merge because they are both “the Way.”

Moreover, in the Middle East, China (and Russia) are completely rethinking their relations with Israel.

In the Jewish state, China seeks advanced technologies and, in fact, in mid-December last year the two countries signed a treaty for the co-financing of some advanced research.

The Chinese banks are now strongly present in the funding of many Israeli projects, as was the case of China CreditEase with the Hapoalim Bank.

Obviously this new link between Israel and China stems from a choice of the Israeli leadership that now sees minimized its relations with the European Union, which is increasingly heading towards dangerous anti-Semitism, as well as its relations with the United States, which are now de facto abandoning the Middle East.

The geopolitical and military alternative option for the United States will be a new cold war with the Russian Federation, a true strategic nonsense which, however, will serve to preserve the old “political-military complex” of which even President Eisenhower feared the choices.

Keeping Europe ever more irrelevant at strategic level and often ridiculous in foreign policy, so as to contain Russia and then China, is the US project, which will be followed also by Barack Obama’ successor, irrespective of his/her political complexion.

It is worth noting that this new North American stance is not at all in contrast with the great project One Belt One Road which, as you can easily understand, is designed to support some countries, namely the less close to the United States, and exclude the others, namely those which are more traditionally in line with the North American Grand Strategy.

In all likelihood, Israel will be a de facto point of arrival of the maritime-terrestrial “Silk Road” while, in the future – once stabilized the Syrian chaos – China will propose itself as a credible mediator and broker between the Jewish State and the Islamic countries.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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