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Can Japan, Russia find a way for reconciliation?

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The relations between Japan and Russia have been strained by two reasons:  four islands between them known as Kuril islands and US pressure on Japan not go for any credible alignment with their “common” ideological foes. Russia and Japan did not sign a formal peace treaty at the end of World War Two because of a dispute over islands in the Western Pacific, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuriles in Russia.

The islands were seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War Two and 17,000 Japanese residents were forced to flee. As no peace treaty was signed between Japan and Russia so far, the two countries are still technically at war.

The Kuril Islands stretch between the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido and Russia’s Kamchatka. The entire archipelago is currently administered by Russia, which received them after WWII under the 1945 Potsdam Declaration. Japan claims sovereignty over the two southernmost large islands of Iturup and Kunashir, as well as the Shikotan and Habomai islets, citing their history as Japan’s northern territories. Russia and Japan did not sign a peace treaty after WWII over the issue.

Moscow claims sovereignty over the islands based on the post-war agreement signed by the Allies in 1945. The pact stipulated the South Kurils became part of the USSR following the war which Japan lost.

Russia maintains that the Soviet Union’s sovereignty over the island was internationally recognized under the agreements signed after the WWII. While addressing the issue, President Putin stressed that signing a peace deal remains a priority for both countries despite “different views” on the matter. “We are united in one – the problem should be solved,” he said. Russian leader though noted that it should be done with full respect to the mutual interests.

Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, Russia and Japan have their eyes firmly on the rewards of peace as they negotiate a mutually beneficial solution to their dispute over the islands known in Tokyo as the Northern Territories and in Moscow as part of the Kurils.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan in December last year marked a major thawing in relations. He and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have pledged to increase economic co-operation and improve access to former residents of the islands as they seek a long-term arrangement.

Relations between Moscow and Tokyo suffered an additional blow after Japan joined the ranks of the states imposing sanctions on Russia following the Ukraine crisis. In a bid to improve ties, Japan’s PM visited the Russian city of Sochi in May, where he made proposals, including the establishing of joint infrastructure in Russia’s Far East.

As of 2016 matters remain unresolved, and these disputes have effectively soured relations between the two countries. According to a 2012 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, 72% of Japanese people view Russia unfavorably, compared with 22% who viewed it favorably, making Japan the country with the most anti-Russian sentiment surveyed. Since 2017, relations between Russia and Japan have improved.

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Tension and improvement

Japan pursues a joint foreign policy along with NATO leader USA and in most issues Tokyo adopts the American approach as its own. This is the major reason why Russia and Japan have not been able forge strong ties as Washington opposes any link with the Kremlin.   

Russia and Japan have been unable to sign a peace treaty in order to realign the ties after World War II due to the Kuril Islands dispute. Over the past decades Tokyo repeatedly stressed that a peace treaty with Moscow is linked to handing back control of the territories.

The dispute has prevented the two parties from formally signing a peace treaty because Japan lays claim to four islands which became part of the Soviet Union when fighting ended in 1945. “Russia’s constructive engagement is essential in resolving global challenges,” Abe said. “Historically Russia has been a very important to Japan, and I think the situation is the same for Russia. It’s an important partner for stability in the Asia Pacific region,” Japan’s foreign press secretary Norio Maruyama told Euronews.

When Boris Yeltsin took power in Russia in late 1991 upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he took a stand in opposition to relinquishing the disputed territories to Japan. In September 1992, Russian president Yeltsin postponed a scheduled visit to Japan. The visit took place in October 1993. He made no further concessions on the Kuril Islands dispute over the four Kuril Islands (northeast of Hokkaido), a considerable obstacle to Japanese-Russian relations, but did agree to abide by the 1956 Soviet pledge to return Shikotan and the Habomai Islands to Japan. Yeltsin also apologized repeatedly for Soviet mistreatment of Japanese prisoners of war after World War II.

In March 1994, then Japanese minister of foreign affairs Hata Tsutomu visited Moscow and met with Russian minister of foreign affairs Andrei Kozyrev and other senior officials. The two sides agreed to seek a resolution over the persistent Kuril Islands dispute, but the decision of the dispute is not expected in the near future. Despite the territorial dispute, Hata offered some financial support to Russian market-oriented economic reforms, hoping for relative change in Russian attitude to the islands in Japan’s favor. In 1998, the newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Keizō Obuchi had focused on major issues: signing a peace treaty with Russia, and renewing the Japanese economy. However, he died soon afterwards.

On August 16, 2006, Russian maritime authorities killed a Japanese fisherman and captured a crab fishing boat in the waters around the disputed Kuril Islands. The Russian foreign ministry has claimed that the death was caused by a “stray bullet”. .On September 28, 2006, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would “continue the dialogue with the new Japanese government. We will build our relations, how the peoples of the two countries want them to be.

The dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands deteriorated Russo-Japan relations when the Japanese government published a new guideline for school textbooks on July 16, 2008 to teach Japanese children that their country has sovereignty over the Kuril Islands. The Russian public was generally outraged by the action and demanded the government to counteract. The Foreign Minister of Russia announced on July 18, 2008 ” these actions contribute neither to the development of positive cooperation between the two countries, nor to the settlement of the dispute,” and reaffirmed its sovereignty over the islands.

In 2010, President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to take a state trip to the Kuril Islands. Medvedev shortly ordered significant reinforcements to the Russian defences on the Kuril Islands. Medvedev was replaced by Vladimir Putin in 2012. In November 2013, Japan held its first ever diplomatic talks with the Russian Federation, and the first with Moscow since the year 1973.

In recent years the relations got strained. In March 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Japan imposed several sanctions against Russia, which included halting consultations on easing the visa regulations between the two countries and suspension of talks on investment cooperation, joint space exploration and prevention of dangerous military activity, obviously annoying the Kremlin.

On 3 Sep, 2016 PM Abe called on President Putin to “take responsibility” to boost the bilateral ties, while talking to the Russian leader on the second and last day of a major economic forum in the Far Eastern Russian city of Vladivostok. “Let us overcome all difficulties and leave the people of the next generation a world in which our two countries will reveal their powerful potential. Let’s put an end to this abnormal situation, which lasted 70 years, and together launch a new era in Japanese-Russian relations,” Abe said.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe said Japan wants to resolve a territorial row that has over-shadowed ties with Russia since World War Two. “A peace treaty between Japan and Russia has not been concluded yet, even after 70 years have passed since the end of World War Two,” Abe told reporters in London. “It is an extremely unusual situation. Infinite possibilities are latent in the cooperation between Japan and Russia.”

During the gathering in Vladivostok, President Putin and PM Abe agreed to once again meet on December 15 in Japan. Resolving the territorial dispute and boosting economic cooperation is set to top the agenda of the gathering, the territorial dispute, however, did not move forward even an inch after the visit.

The second meeting between Putin and the Japanese prime minister this year, and Putin’s first visit to a Group of Seven nation since top Western powers and Japan slapped sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The sense that something extraordinary might be in the air was boosted by reports in the Japanese media that the USA had repeatedly urged Abe not to meet with Putin, but the objections had been “brushed off” by Tokyo. “People are seeing this meeting as a possible breakthrough, but we see it as the beginning of an important new process,” says Sergei Markov, a past adviser to Putin. “Japan seems willing to change its direction and renew its relations with Moscow and we welcome that. But solving the territorial issue is not a simple matter; it might take decades.”

Expectation

Many experts believe that, for the first time since at least 1956, there could be an opportunity to formally end World War II between Russia and Japan, solve a long-running territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands, and through that new political relationship finally unlock a flood of Japanese investment into Russia’s undeveloped far eastern region.

Expectations have grown that Putin and Abe might formally end World War II animosity between Russia and Japan during their meeting, but the Kremlin warned that any progress in the ties is unlikely. Still, Russians see great opportunity to be had. The Kremlin is furiously tamping down expectations for the unusual summit meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a hot springs resort near Abe’s home town of Nagato. That’s not surprising, since the hopes that have been aroused are nothing short of breathtaking.

Political economy

Though the two restored diplomatic ties long ago, the spat has prevented the conclusion of a formal peace treaty and has been cited by successive Japanese governments as a reason not to enter into major economic cooperation with Russia.

The outlines of a compromise were reached soon after World War two in 1956 following the demise of Joseph Stalin, under which the then-Soviet government would relinquish the two southernmost islands in return for a peace treaty and normalization of relations with Japan. That deal was reportedly scuttled by pressure from Washington, which threatened to keep control over Okinawa if Japan went ahead with the exchange. After that the dispute hardened, and has become a staple rallying cry for nationalists in both Russia and Japan.

The economic relations between the NATO member and anti-NATO Russia have been very nominal. Although Japan joined with the Group of Seven industrialized nations in contributing some technical and financial assistance to Russia, relations between Tokyo and Moscow remained poor.

Russia and China for a long time long had tension over disputed territories. But Russia made up with its neighbor China by surrendering it the disputed territories. Possibly Japan also expects similar positive gesture form the Kremlin but does not want to come out of US clutches and the NATO that target Russia. Worse, Japan, on instructions from USA, slapped sanctions on Russia over Crimea issue. This cannot make Moscow happy.

Trade between Moscow and Tokyo has quadrupled since 2006. In 2013 trade between our countries reached a record-high [$34.8 billion. In 2015 the volume dropped by almost 40 percent due to falling oil prices, Trade turnover between Russia and Japan grew by 25 percent compared to last year in the first quarter of 2017, owing to the development of the political and economic cooperation. The export of food products, textile, rubber goods and cellulose products from Russia is actively developing. The volume of export to Russia increased by 14 percent, the supplies of the Russian goods to Japan grew, the growth stood at 29 percent. The investment attractiveness of Russia has increased because the Russian economy “set the course toward the recovery from the two-year-long decline

At a time when the return of even the two islands of Shikotan and Habomai appears hopeless, the fact that methods of travel for former residents of the islands have expanded, making it easier for them to visit the islands, is in itself welcome, even as they remain deeply resentful that no mention at all has been made of the return of the territories. On the other hand, they view the progress of joint economic activities with caution, for if these proceed, they will complicate requests for compensation in respect of assets left behind on the islands.

Meetings between Japanese and Russian diplomats are often accompanied by promises of large Japanese investment in Russia. The Putin-Abe summit in December 2016 was no different. Japan believes that investing in Russia demonstrates tangible benefits that could accompany improved relations between the two countries.[4] Russia is happy to accept foreign investment.  Russia is looking for Japanese investment in the Far East, while Japan hopes to recover the territories lost after WWII. However, Russia has repeatedly rebuffed Japanese claims. 

Main factors that limit the prospects of economic ties between Japan and Russia include, first, foreign investors of all nationalities find Russia a difficult place to do business, few attractive investment opportunities and Russian business is mired in corruption and red tape. .The Japanese government refuses to convince Japanese firms that Russia is an attractive place to invest. In fact,  the government does not promote  that at all. The Russian Far East is not economically important to Moscow, and infrastructure lags behind that of Russia’s most developed regions. Even if Japanese firms decided to significantly increase investment, there is no reason to think this would change the Kremlin’s political calculations that drive diplomacy with Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the development of the Nemuro region, which adjoins the Northern Territories, had been hampered by prohibitions on business and free travel between Nemuro and the islands. So joint economic activities that involve doing business with the islands, no matter what form they take, are much anticipated.

The two Asian neighbors agreed to jointly invest $1 billion in Japanese development of the Russian economy, along with other commercial ventures by Japanese firms. And the surviving former Japanese residents of the islands, who were forced to leave after the Soviet invasion, might be able to visit their ancestors’ graves.

Though the purpose of meetings is to explore ways that economic cooperation can be strengthened through a “special system” that would not undermine either side’s legal claim on the islands, there is skepticism in Russia about how benign Japan’s intentions truly are.

Moscow and Tokyo are currently working on creating a ‘green corridor’ to simplify customs procedures and boost trade.  Japan talked about joint Russia-Japan energy projects Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2, and Russia’s crude oil supplies to the country.

Japanese companies have invested and operate in the Russian automobile and construction industries. About 14 percent of all Russian cars are produced in Russian factories by Japanese manufacturers. Imports of Japanese cars and industrial machinery have been significantly reduced as a result of Western sanctions against Russia. Japanese banks have problems providing export credit for equipment sold to Russia, while sanctions make it difficult to conduct business using US dollar transactions.

In 2014 Japan followed US sanctions with 23 visa bans on Russian citizens, including government officials. Russian ambassador to Japan Evgeny Afanasiev said the investment attractiveness of Russia has increased because the Russian economy set the course toward the recovery from the two-year-long decline

Russia in Asia

Major territories of Russia lie in European continent. Though it hates USA and American superiority manners Russia looks to European culture and civilization and is eager to join it.

Russia’s main foreign policy aims remain largely focused on its Western front — in Eastern Europe, in the Black Sea, and increasingly in the Middle East. Russia’s political elite keeps its money in Europe, educates its children in Europe, vacations in Europe, and assesses its geopolitical stature in relation to the USA.

For decades Moscow has been working to make its foreign policy goals West focused and it uses Asian links only to increase Russia’s leverage in negotiations with the West. With China, Russia is showcasing a strong alliance that can withstand any pressure tactics of USA and Europe. Russia has strengthened diplomatic, military, and energy ties with China. But the Kremlin has done so not because it is interested in Asia per se, but rather because it wants to show Western powers that it has other diplomatic options.

Thus Asia is not Russia’s priority but the West is to achieve that goal Russia is using all possibilities in Asia, China being the major Asian power. .

A significant strain in Russian foreign policy thinking interprets US alliances less as agreements between equal sovereign countries, and more as command-and-control relationships, with dictates coming from Washington. Russian foreign policy circles do not view Japan as an independent actor due to its security relationship with the USA.

The Kremlin places relatively little emphasis on its foreign policy in Asia. Many Russians believe that Japan’s security alliance with the USA means that Tokyo is not a fully independent diplomatic actor. Both factors mean that Moscow is not prepared to spend significant diplomatic energy or political capital in developing relations with Japan.

While Russian leaders regularly attend summits in the West, they often skip key meetings in Asia.[2] Moscow devotes far more resources to managing its relations with the West. That leaves little time for Tokyo

The perception in Moscow that Japan cannot make independent decisions reduces Russia’s willingness to spend political capital improving relations. Combined with the Kremlin’s general lack of focus on Asia, this means that Japan plays only a minor role in Russia’s foreign policy agenda.

Sino-Russian bilateral trade in the first ten months of 2015 touched $55.9 billion, a fall of 29 percent from the same period a year ago. From January to October 2015, China’s exports to Russia stood at $28.46 billion, a fall of 35.7 percent from a year ago, while Imports from Russia fell by 20.7 percent and stood at $27.45 billion.

 Japan wants improved ties with Russia today to hedge against China. But for Russia, the most urgent priority is good ties with China to hedge against Washington. For Tokyo, a key rationale for improving relations with Russia is the rise of China and Tokyo wants to reduce the importance of Russian links with Japan. . China’s power is increasing, and Russia is currently aligned with China on many questions of Asian politics and security. Improving economic ties between Russia and Japan would make Russia less dependent on China, thereby weakening Beijing’s position. From Japan’s perspective, the goal is not to forge an alliance with Russia but to ensure that Russia is not forced into a de facto alliance with China because Moscow lacks other partners in the Asia-Pacific region.

 The specifics of Tokyo’s defense build up make Russia worried. For example, Japan sees missile defense investment as crucial to mounting an effective defense against North Korean missiles. But Russia interprets Japanese investments in this sphere — which take place in close cooperation with the USA — as potentially part of US efforts to strengthen anti-missile capabilities along Russia’s border.

USA does not want any real improvement in Russo-Japan relations that would result in Tokyo relinquishing its ties with Washington which could spell disaster for NATO as well. USA has gone for punishing the Kremlin in a big way, though that would not make any real impact on Russian economy.

Little progress

The main reason why Japan could not achieve a peace treaty and resolution of territorial disputes with Russia obviously is the superpower- the Uncle Sam. USA doesn’t want to lose the Asian economic power Japan to Russia as that would weaken NATO terror operations across the globe. Washington is keeping a close eye on any developments in Japan-Russia relations, of course. 

The purpose of the April 24 teleconference between Abe and President Donald Trump was to keep the USA in the loop. What really was the outcome of the Abe-Putin summit talks on April 27?  Following the “success” of the Japan-Russia summit in December last year, the stated purpose of the visit was to move forward with the agreement reached at that summit, toward a resolution of the Kuril Islands (Northern Territories) issue, involving the question of disputed islands off the coast of Hokkaido.

Regarding the issue of visits to ancestral graves, former islanders will be transported by air on Russian chartered aircraft from Nemuro Nakashibetsu to Kunashiri and Etorofu. In addition, a new checkpoint will be opened to facilitate entry to the Habomai islets, an area that was previously difficult to access directly. On the issue of joint economic activities, a Japanese-Russian investigative group will be organized to conduct an on-site survey. Abe emphasizes that nothing is new. Air travel to the islands was in operation at one point in 2000. It was also possible to access the Habomai islets in the past.  Visits to ancestors’ graves by chartered aircraft are referred to as “special visits to ancestors’ graves,” and may be granted for a single visit only. No progress was made on the Kuril Islands issue itself. Putin spoke at length about the economy, making only brief reference to the “peace treaty” toward the end, which he said should be in a form that was advantageous for both countries. Abe too, as before, emphasized his accomplishments, praising himself for them, , with no mention whatsoever of the territorial issue..

During a bilateral summit meeting in Moscow on April 27, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to make concrete progress toward deepening trust, resolving the issue of the disputed Northern Territories – the Kuril Islands – and concluding a peace treaty. Japan and Russia agreed that a joint public-private survey mission would be sent to the Northern Territories as early as May to research how the two countries can pursue economic cooperation. Areas of research for potential cooperation include fish and sea urchin farming and ecotourism. This step is in line with Abe and Putin’s December agreement to launch talks on joint activities on the islands.

In addition to the Ukraine issue, which necessitated the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the Group of Seven powers, Japan and Russia now differ on other issues that previously posed relatively few conflicts, most notably North Korea and Syria. On the latter, Japan had no option but to support the US strike on Syria; and as for the former, Russia has blocked Washington’s call for action, adopting a stance that emphasizes a peaceful resolution of the North Korean issue.

Going forward, Japan has no choice but to continue to support the US stance, so the recent tensions in US-Russian relations will cast a dark cloud over improved relations with Russia. And given recent revelations, there is a high likelihood that relations between the United States and Russia will only become more complicated, and pressure on Japan will increase. Abe’s attempts to achieve better relations with Russia with no regard for how his actions may appear are now looking increasingly risky.

Relations between Tokyo and Beijing are very tense these days. Japan basically tries to go everywhere that China goes – Africa, Latin America – to try and counter Chinese influence. The growing closeness between Russia and China is of the utmost concern to the Japanese, so there is an obvious effort under way to offset that.

The Russian media is heralding more than 60 intergovernmental and commercial agreements set to be signed during the visit. But most of those appear to be “memorandums of understanding” – vague commitments to do something in future rather than finished plans. And it’s hard to see how Russia’s Far East, with its difficult investment climate and scanty infrastructure, could rapidly absorb any big inflow of capital.

Nevertheless, most experts say the core issues of territorial compromise and a peace treaty have remained elusive and all results so far are only in the form of a “face-saving declaration” at the end of summits. Public opinion in Russia is solidly opposed to exchanging any Kuril Islands for a peace treaty with Japan, a view expressed by 78 percent of Russians in a recent poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow. Polls suggest Japanese public opinion is more open to a deal, but that growing numbers expect Russia to return all four Kuril Islands rather than just the two Moscow would be willing to discuss.

Russian foreign policy experts caution against any breakthroughs at the summits even amid a rapidly changing world picture. “Putin is at the height of his power and popularity, and he has a lot of political capital to spend”. US-Russia relations are expected to produce a thaw during the Trump rein.

Is a Russia-Japan ‘reset’ possible?

At a meeting in December Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Russian President Putin agreed to take steps that might someday help resolve a 71-year dispute over a string of islands. They agreed to explore joint economic projects on the islands under a possible “special” legal framework that would, in the words of Abe, not “infringe on the sovereignty positions of either side.”

From the press conference Abe held with Russian President Vladimir Putin it is clear that, as with the summit in December, no progress was made on the Kuril Islands (Northern Territories) issue itself. The phrase “resolution of the territories issue” was not used once at the press conference.

Several territorial disputes between the neighboring countries generally take similar position, except India and Pakistan because they occupy another nation – Jammu Kashmir – over which both claim disputes. In many countries, a popular reaction to globalization has led to the election of leaders – such as in the USA – with a strong passion for nationalism. These leaders often demand greater sovereignty over the economy or, in some cases, territory. To cool these passions and prevent conflict, nations tend to find a common purpose. A good example was a recent summit between Japan and Russia.

Nationalists in both countries, which include Putin and Abe, insist on sovereignty over the islands. And after Putin took Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, he may have little inclination to give land to Japan. Yet both men, for strategic reasons, see advantages in working together on economic goals as they keep talking about ownership and control of the islands. Even the deepest gulf can look less worrisome if spanned by at least one bridge.

The nub of the dispute is four tiny islands off the northern tip of Japan that the USSR seized and annexed in the closing days of World War II. Russia refers to them as the “southern Kurils” while Japanese call them their “northern territories.”

What is new and different right now is that Abe has reversed the policy of previous Japanese governments, and allowed that economic cooperation could come before a resolution of the territorial dispute. For Abe, whose previous attempt to forge an opening with Russia was derailed when the West imposed sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, it’s really important to use this window of opportunity now that the new government by Donald Trump assumed power at White House, to get some progress. The ideas about the changing Asia Pacific do not seem worked-out by the new Trump regime at all.

For Putin it’s a chance to demonstrate, by courting a G-7 country, that Russia is not isolated. The visit sent a strong message, not only to the West but also to China, that Moscow has other options. Japan may also be using the situation to send its own signal to China, which has enjoyed a fast-growing relationship with Russia amid the recent East-West tensions, that Moscow’s allegiance cannot be taken for granted.

Even if the spigot opens and Japanese investment is freed to invest in Russia, the potential is hard to gauge.

Observation

Russo-Japanese relations cannot be expected to improve tangibly unless Japan amends its policy of blindly following the US dictates and begin formulates its independent external policy. Otherwise, all economic invocations by trade etc would only keep the tensions under check. Keeping the vital territorial issue at bay would not help them stabilize the ties and end mutual tensions. Moscow expects a genuine change of mind in Tokyo and not just extending few carets – after all, Russia is not a third world country. 

Japan’s policy toward Russia highlights how difficult it is for Japan to have a foreign policy independent of the US preferences. Whenever progress is made in the Japan-Russia relationship, a black swan event, such as the Russian annexation of Crimea or the US cruise missile strike on Syria, threatens to undo it all.

Abe dreams of concluding the peace treaty that eluded his father needs to have his work cut out for him trying to balance demands from Washington and Moscow. Towing the US line for everything will not do any good in improving the ties with Moscow. .

Following the bilateral summit, Abe and Putin both called on North Korea and other countries to avoid behavior or rhetoric that could increase tensions around Pyongyang’s nuclear program and stated they had agreed to closely cooperate to try to help defuse tensions. Maybe, they have done it under US direction. The joint military exercises  near Guam involving Japanese, USA, French, and British forces are a sign of how Japan’s defense relationship with European partners can become institutionalized – a partnership that had long been seen as “exotic” and difficult to materialize.

As the Russo-Japanese territorial disputes do not look resolvable with each sticking to their own positions without any relaxation, Russia and Japan seem to have agreed on a move toward resolving a territorial dispute by first focusing on a common goal: joint development of the islands.  If it works, the agreement may be a model for similar disputes in Asia.

Several of Asia’s many island disputes have led to joint development of resources as a way to avoid direct confrontation over territory or to create political conditions for an eventual settlement. The Japan-Russia deal could become another model. The proposed joint development will bring the two peoples closer together, said Mr. Putin, and “help foster trust toward a peace treaty.”

That last point is critical. Moscow and Tokyo have never formally ended hostilities from World War II. And toward the end of the war, the then-Soviet Union took over the islands, which were long held by Japan. Among the Japanese, they are known as the Northern Territories. To Russians, they are the Southern Kurils.

Japan needs to kick the United States military out of its country. World War 2 ended a long time ago, time for the Americans to move along. Japan should have to look after itself now. The Japanese have not forgotten the rapes of their local women committed by the US military bases there as well as the trouble they are causing for the local communities.

The UK needs Russia after it leaves the EU as the goal all along for the European Union has been to form a superstate. It won’t be surprising if the UK and Russia would have a joint Naval exercise in UK waters

Russia is seen returning to Asia with stronger bonds with China, and improving relations with Japan are certainly on the agenda. Maybe no big surprises in the form of dramatic positives will emerge, but some kind of movement for sure.

Moscow and Tokyo are discussing the possibility of organizing cruises around the South Kuril Islands, the Kyodo news agency reports quoting diplomatic sources. This is a part of a plan to develop business links in the disputed territories.

Following the visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan in December last year, Moscow and Tokyo agreed to start joint economic activities on the islands. Putin will meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Vladivostok in September to continue the discussions. The countries plan to develop fishing, tourism, healthcare and ecology in the region.

For now, there is nothing to indicate how Abe’s key initiatives will subsequently unfold. Even if all the latest plans materialize, there is no guarantee they will be sustainable, and even if they are, it is doubtful that they will lead to the resolution of the Territories’ issue. Leaving aside the question of the future, it can be considered as a kind of gambit by Japanese government to show the public that things are now moving. The prospect of significantly expanded economic relations between the two countries is limited.

As a result of the tension between the economic giants the people living in the region feel being besieged by these powers.

Don’t they deserve a usual, if not honorable, life at all?

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East Asia

Targeting the ‘Heart of Eurasia’: China’s Xinjiang and US’ Game Plan

Irfan Shahzad Takalvi

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The cat is out of the bag now, clearly! While it never was a secret, it is becoming increasingly evident that US’ recent posturing over Xinjiang is a tool in America’s commercial war against China, and human rights’ mantra is only a pretext. Importantly, these moves by the US are targeting not only China but threaten the whole region of central Eurasia, and beyond, in more ways than one.

If human rights in any way represented genuine US concerns, most of trade between the US on one hand and countries like India and Israel on the other must have come to a halt by now. In Xinjiang’s case, it is realpolitik, human rights is only a cover.

The latest US move aims to hit hard at key exports from Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), citing – without any internationally accepted evidence – that the goods exported from this Chinese region involve ‘forced labor.’ 

How and where from has this ‘forced labor’ emerged suddenly? The US’ legislators and a whole barrage of international anti-China propaganda machinery are trying to make the world believe that China has established a large number of camps where people are forced to do certain works, against their will. And who is propagating this? The same global machinery that left no stone unturned in making the world believe that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) – based on this, they invaded Iraq, killed millions of people, destroyed the country pushing it back by decades, and the nation is still finding it hard to pull itself together. The world even today sees no dependable traces of WMDs in Iraq, which was the primary pretext of a war that devastated Iraq, and played havoc with America’s own economy.

Xinjiang, and China, luckily are by no means an easy prey, as was Iraq. Hence, the war against them is centered on economic attacks, mainly, in addition to pumping up the Uygur diaspora abroad. 

A large number of people coming out of vocational training centers that China has established across XUAR – that the US in particular and ant-China global lobby in general tries to sell as ‘camps’ – tell us different, and very encouraging, stories. Over past months, these training centers have trained thousands of people in a variety of vocational fields, equipping them with skills necessary to live respectable lives in a fast growing and expanding economy. These centers have produced skilled, responsive and dynamic workforce catering to the needs of an emerging modern economy. Industrial workers, technicians, teachers, entrepreneurs, working hands and minds for burgeoning e-commerce, and even fine-tuned artists represent a new, up and coming, confident class of Xinjiang’s present day residents, belonging to all ethnic groups, who have been groomed in these centers.

Past few years have also seen a notable upward economic momentum in Xinjiang. The region’s gross domestic product (GDP) has witnessed a significant jump from less than 147 billion U.S. dollars in 2014 to 205 billion U.S. dollars by 2019, which means an average yearly increase of 7.2 percent. Even in the extraordinary time of pandemic, Xinjiang has witnessed 3.3% GDP growth in the first half of 2020, where most of the countries around have gone into a devastating slump.

So what is really the US is targeting to achieve with its recent moves vis-à-vis Xinjiang? First and foremost, one has to keep in mind that China produces some one fifth of the world’s cotton, and almost 70% of Chinese produce of cotton comes from Xinjiang. So, a large number of Chinese apparel exports to the US may be targeted under this pretext of ‘forced labor’ – a potentially dangerous tool in the hands of Washington DC in its economic war against Beijing.  Same is the case with other major products of Xinjiang, tomatoes for instance that are being targeted by the US.

Ironically, US’ own major businesses including US Chamber of Commerce are also opposing America’s economic assault on Xinjiang, as they deem it hitting at their own interests. US’ Customs and Border Protection (CBP) authorities also can’t hide the fact that evidence their administration and legislators cite against Xinjiang is “not conclusive”. It all comes at the height of US’ economic tirade against China; and weeks before US’ presidential elections 2020.

But the US’ game plan about Xinjiang, understandably, is not merely bilateral. US’ opposition to and designs against Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) needs little stress; and it is well-known that Xinjiang is pivotal for BRI’s success. China, over past few years, has pursued policies that have closely integrated Xinjiang with countries of the region – notably Pakistan, Central Asian States and Russia.

It would not be wrong to state that Xinjiang has already emerged as the economic center, the ‘heart’ of re-merging supercontinent, Eurasia, as Beijing has focused extensively on building rail, road and aerial networks for regional connectivity. This has given tremendous boost to regional trade and commerce; figures and data are openly available. Now the economies of countries bordering XUAR are closely intertwined with this Chinese region’s economy.

In the wake of international propaganda about Xinjiang, one has to bear in mind that there is not a single country on the face of the earth where some segments of society does not have some complaints against the government, and beyond that the state. Xinjiang may well be no exception in this regard.  But while visiting Xinjiang – and this author has visited some 10 times over past around one decade – one finds that majority of XUAR’s people are quite happy with their lives. This applies to people from all ethnic groups.

It would be unjust to ignore the efforts that central authorities in Beijing and provincial government in Urumqi are trying to address such complains, as well as the extraordinary plans, schemes and programs being run for economic, societal and societal development of all people of Xinjiang, encompassing all of its ethnic minorities. October 1, 2020 also marks 65 years of establishment of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, along with 71 years of establishment of People’s Republic of China. These past 65 years have seen Xinjiang grow from strength to strength, internally, as well as in terms of its linkages with wider continental space around it.

It must be stressed here again that international hue and cry about Xinjiang has little to do with human rights but part of a greater design against China and particularly its mega BRI that is playing a momentous role in making the supercontinent of Eurasia remerge as a single economic, and beyond that political, space. Hits at this Chinese region are actually hitting at the efforts made by China and its regional partners, over past decade or so, for bringing this region together.

Countries around Xinjiang in particular need to understand that economic warfare unleashed on this autonomous region of China has far-reaching consequences for broader regional integration; and it is not China alone that will have to face the brunt of US’ policy in this connection.

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East Asia

China’s Belt and Road pinpoints fundamental issues of our times

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Based on remarks at the RSIS book launch of Alan Chong and Quang Minh Pham (eds), Critical Reflections on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Palgrave MacMillan, 2020

Political scientists Alan Chong and Quang Min Pham bring with their edited volume originality as well as dimensions and perspectives to the discussion about the Belt and Road that are highly relevant but often either unrecognized or underemphasized.

The book is about much more than the material aspects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In fact, various chapter authors use the Belt and Road to look at perhaps the most fundamental issue of our times: how does one build a global world order and societies that are inclusive, cohesive and capable of managing interests of all stakeholders as well as political, cultural, ethnic and religious differences in ways that all are recognized without prejudice and/or discrimination?

In doing so, the book introduces a moral category into policy and policy analysis. That is an important and commendable effort even if it may be a hard sell in an increasingly polarized world in which prejudice and bias and policies that flow from it have gained new legitimacy and become mainstream in various parts of the world.

It allows for the introduction of considerations that are fundamental to managing multiple current crises that have been accentuated by the pandemic and its economic fallout.

One of those is put forward in the chapter of the late international affairs scholar Lily Ling in which she writes about the need for a global agenda to take the requirements of ordinary people into account to ensure a more inclusive world. The question is how does one achieve that.

It is a question that permeates multiple aspects of our individual and collective lives.

If the last decade was one of defiance and dissent, of a breakdown in confidence in political leadership and systems and of greater authoritarianism and autocracy to retain power, this new decade, given the pandemic and economic crisis, is likely to be a continuation of the last one on steroids.

One only has to look at continued Arab popular revolts, Black Lives Matter, the anti-lockdown protests, and the popularity of conspiracy theories like QAnon. All of this is compounded by decreasing trust in US leadership and the efficacy of Western concepts of governance, democratic backsliding, and the handling of the pandemic in America and Europe.

Mr. Chong conceptualizes in his chapter perceived tolerance along ancient silk roads as stemming from what he terms ‘mercantile harmony’ among peoples and elites rather than states. It was rooted, in Mr. Chong’s mind, in empathy, a sense of spirituality and a mercantile approach towards the exchange of ideas and goods.

It was also informed by the solidarity of travellers shaped by the fact that they encountered similar obstacles and threats on their journeys. And it stems from the connectivity needs of empires that built cities and roads to retain their control that Mr. Chong projects as civilization builders.

There may be an element of idealization of the degree of tolerance along the ancient Silk Road and the assertion that the new silk road is everything that the old silk road was not. But the notion of the role of non-state, civil society actors is key to the overall quest for inclusiveness.

So is the fact that historic travellers like Fa-Hsien, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta grappled with the very same issues that today’s world is attempting to tackle: the parameters of human interaction, virtue, diversity, governance, materialism, and the role of religion.

The emphasis on a moral category and the comparison of the ancient and the new Silk Road frames a key theme in the book: the issue of the China-centric, top down nature of the Belt and Road. Vietnamese China scholar Trinh Van Dinh positions the Belt and Road as the latest iteration of China’s history of the pioneering of connectivity as the reflection of a regime that is at the peak of its power.

Mr. Van Dinh sees the Belt and Road as the vehicle that will potentially revitalize Chinese economic development. It is a proposition on which the jury is still out in a world that could split into two distinct camps.

It is a world in which China brings much to the table but that is also populated by black and grey swans, some of which are of China’s own making. These include the favouring of Chinese companies and labour in Belt and Road projects, although to be fair Western development aid often operated on the same principle. But it also includes China’s brutal response to perceived threats posed by ethnic and religious minorities.

That may be one arena where the failure to fully consider the global breakdown in confidence in leadership and systems comes to haunt China. That is potentially no more the case than in the greater Middle East that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa into the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Its not an aspect that figures explicitly in political scientist Manouchehr Dorraj’s contribution to the book on China’s relationship with Iran as well as Saudi Arabia but lingers in the background of his perceptive analysis of anticipated changes in the region’s lay of the land.

Mr. Dooraj focusses on three aspects that are important as one watches developments unfold: The impact of shifts in the energy mix away from oil coupled with the emergence of significant reserves beyond the Middle East, Iran’s geopolitical advantages compared to Saudi Arabia when it comes to the architecture of the Belt and Road, and the fact that China is recognizing that refraining from political engagement is no longer viable.

However, China’s emphasis on state-to-state relationships could prove to be a risky strategy assuming that the Middle East will retain its prominence in protests that seek to ensure better governance and more inclusive social and economic policies.

That takes on added significance given that potential energy shifts could reduce Chinese dependence on Middle Eastern energy as well as repeated assertions by Chinese intellectuals that call into question the relative importance of China’s economic engagement in the region as well as its ranking in Chinese strategic thinking.

The implications of the book’s partial emphasis on what Mr. Chong terms philosophical and cultural dialogue reach far beyond the book’s confines. They go to issues that many of us are grappling with but have no good answers.

In his conclusion, Mr. Chong suggests that in order to manage different value systems and interests one has to water down the Westphalian dogma of treating national interests as zero-sum conceptions.

One just has to look at the pandemic the world is trying to come to grips with, the need for a global health care governance that can confront future pandemics, and the world’s environmental crisis to realize the relevance of former Singaporean diplomat and public intellectual Kishore Mahbubani’s description of the nation state system as a boat with 193 cabins and cabin administrators but no captain at the helm.

Mr. Chong looks for answers in the experience of ancient Silk Road travellers. That may be a standard that a Belt and Road managed by an autocratic Chinese leadership that is anything but inclusive would at best struggle to meet.

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East Asia

The Chinese Agitprop: Disinformation, Propaganda and Payrolls

Ganesh Puthur

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“If you repeat a lie often enough people will believe it and you will even believe it yourself”. -Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propagandist

Successful dictatorships had always trapped its subjects in an ‘illusion of truth’. Those nations only showed their citizens what they were supposed to see, thus preventing any social unrest or exposure to an unpleasant reality. The primary abstracts of what is popularly known as Propaganda today can be found in the ancient Indian text of ‘Arthashastra’ and Chinese book ‘The Art of War’. In the first half of the 20th century, the Russian Federation, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had separate departments within their governments for propaganda works. Even though these administrative units fell over time, their models are still emulated with various scientific up-gradations by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Soon after the October revolution in Russia, the new dispensation started sending artists and dramatists to the countryside to romanticise the uprising and to glorify Bolsheviks. These activities were carried out by the Department of Agitation and Propaganda, popularly known as ‘Agitprop’. This propaganda machinery kept the Russians unaware of the massive killings with the state’s patronage, labour camps and death due to famines. After the establishment of PRC, multiple key initiatives were rolled out by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which deemed to fail. What came later was ‘Cultural revolution’ starting from 1966 and lasted until 1976. In the due period, a large number of citizens were indoctrinated; dissidents were labelled and executed as counter-revolutionaries and millions died due to famine. After opening up its market and becoming a manufacturing hub, China pulled millions of its citizens out of poverty and could later become the world’s second-largest economy. But over-ambitious China had grand designs for its global posturing and creating a utopia through propaganda for their citizens. 

To begin with, China has multiple internal issues to hide from the global community. Their persecutions of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province and cell rule in occupied Tibet are among the few issues. Forceful abortions in Uighur women, organ harvesting, imposition of Han culture and massive re-education centres in Xinjiang are condemned by the Human Rights organisations. But ‘the great firewall’ prevents the global community from knowing the gravity of human rights abuses in China. Laogai prison camps which are Chinese equivalent to the Soviet Gulag shelters millions of prisoners, kept under inhumane conditions. Any individual not following the CCP’s axioms stands vulnerable to be named and shamed as anti-State.

China’s grip over its media is also notoriously known. Their official newspaper ‘People’s Daily’ gives a distorted world view for its citizens and CCP’s tabloid ‘Global Times’ carries their propaganda and message to the world. Controlling media is hence an important part of China’s ‘Psychological Warfare’ doctrine. Recently, China claimed that only 82,000 people in China got affected by COVID-19 pandemic. Major international health experts refuted this claim and predicted that thousands could have died in China due to the disease. Numbers will never come out to the public domain unless the CCP wants us to know the truth. China even refused to acknowledge that COVID-19 originated from their nation and accused America of bringing the virus strain to China. There were multiple reports of China exporting faulty PPE kits to the Corona affected countries. But this incident was severely downplayed by global media houses. That shows us the power of Chinese propaganda machinery where they have the resources to hide its entire negative aura and project themselves as a responsible emerging superpower.

Another important aspect is China using soft-power to further push its agenda. Confucius Institutes (CI) operated by the Chinese government is one among many strategies adopted by CCP to influence other nations. China’s National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (NOCFL) has established 550 CIs in foreign universities and 1172 Confucius Classrooms in primary and secondary levels of foreign schools. CIs and CCs have a presence in around 162 countries globally. U.S Secretary of state Mike Pompeo recently called the Confucius Institute as “an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign” on American campuses. He also stated that the students of the U.S should have access to Chinese language and culture free from manipulations. China is also using its money power to consolidate its position is western societies using academic and cultural institutions.  American Education Department had recently asked Ivy League Universities to report undisclosed funds that they had received from China. Along with the Chinese Mandarin, lessons on Chinese history and polity are taught in these Confucius centres. Students are easy prey to propaganda and hence CCP has the game plan to brainwash them to create a positive image of China abroad. China had initially planned to open 1000 CIs globally by the end of 2020, calling it the Confucius revolution.

Recently, The Indian Express exposed the Chinese snooping of 10,000 influential Indian including the President, Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, Politicians, Academicians and people from all walks of life. CCP had assigned this task to a company named Zenhua Data Information Technology Co having close links with the government and PLA. There were even accusations of China collecting personal data from the users of PUBG and TikTok which lead to its ban in India along with other popular apps. TikTok contained contents that were unscientific and glorified violence but the parent company censored any references to contentious issues in China like the Tibet, Xinjiang, Communism or even ‘Winnie the Pooh’. China had banned popular global social media portals including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Tumblr. China has developed clones to all these websites which their citizens can use, but the clones are highly monitored. By doing so, CCP restricts Chinese citizens from having any free interaction with the world outside China. But even when these global social media giants are blocked in China, the Chinese government uses them for their propaganda works. Recently, Twitter deleted 1,70,000 accounts linked to China for spreading disinformation. China also uses its Proxies in Pakistan to target their antagonist nations through hybrid warfare (or 5th Generation warfare). So, the Chinese master plan of using its apparatus to create disturbances in other countries while keeping their society intact needs to be identified.

CCP’s fondness for Propaganda can be better understood by looking at China’s international aspirations. In the emerging new world order China find itself at the centre of all economic activities hence materialising the ancient notion of it being the ‘Middle Kingdom’. The Chinese government has a brutal history of crushing all dissidents. It is therefore important for the state to put its citizens in a pseudo-reality and also make the world believe that the internal affairs of China are all normal. CCP has been doing ‘Donation Diplomacy’ (some in the form of gifts) to make nations and social influencers to fall in line to the benefit of China. The U.S had even accused the Chinese government of sending students to their nation for espionage purpose. The Chinese had even launched ‘Operation Fox hunt’ for terminating Dissidents of CCP living abroad.

China’s ‘wolf warrior diplomats’ work overtime to project their nation as the new Messiah for global stability. What they wish to conceal is the repression CCP does back home through enormous propaganda. The major problem with the PRC is that it doesn’t work like a republic. Instead, it functions as a Multi-National Company (MNC) greedy for profit, exploitation of its workers and ruthless extraction of natural resources. In the due process the MNC spends millions of dollars for its image makeover through PR agencies. The rising dominance of China is a threat to global peace, the existence of its neighbouring countries and risks the very notion of reality with manipulations.   

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