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East Asia

Japan and emerging Indo-Pacific



On January 8-10, 2019, the international forum Raisina Dialogue, dedicated to the Indo-Pacific region issues, was held in New Delhi. Representatives from China, Russia, US, Japan, Australia, Iran, as well as from NATO member states, took part in the forum. One of the central themes was a formation of security dialogue between Japan, the United States, Australia and India—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad.

In2007,Shinzo Abe expressed the idea about a four-sided format of interaction in the Indo-Pacific region; at the same time, the term Indo-Pacific began to be used more frequently. What has been changed in Japan`s security policy since then and how has the geopolitical landscape changed?

Indo-Pacific region: new reality

There are some preconditions for more broad use of term “Indo-Pacific”, that show geoeconomic and geopolitical changes in the international arena at the beginning of the 21st century: growth of trade carried by sea; security challenges to the loaded sea routes connecting the Indian Ocean and the western part of the Pacific Ocean; growing influence of India and China in regional economic and military-political dimensions; emerging network links between remote countries beyond the geographical boundaries of Asia-Pacific; development of the institutional structure of the Asia-Pacific region and increased number of countries participating in the regional platforms at the expense of non-regional actors, such as India (ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asian Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministers +).

In the 2007 article «Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan cooperation” Gurpreet S. Khurana, Executive Director of the National Maritime Foundation in India, discusses the Indo-Pacific region, interconnected by maritime communications, and justifies the need for cooperation between Japan and India to protect sea routes. The same year in August Shinzo Abe in his speech at the Parliament of the Republic of India stressed the interconnection between the Indian and Pacific oceans and importance of stability there as a guarantee of Asia`s prosperity.

In 2012 Shinzo Abe rose the idea of the Quad again. And that time the international environment turned to be more favorable and receptive to the idea of quadrilateral cooperation: two years earlier the situation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands had escalated; Beijing’s policy of expanding its military presence on the seas as well as military infrastructure on the artificial islands in the South-China Sea become increasingly disturbing to the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. By that time, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the importance of the Indo-Pacific basin and necessity to ensure its security, president Barack Obama underlined the great potential of Asia-Pacific and US`s presence there as its foreign policy priority; then in 2012 America`s concept of “Pivot to Asia” was revealed.

In addition to Shinzo Abe personal ambitions to make Japan a “normal” country and influential actor in the international arena, by removing postwar restrictions related to the possibility of having an army, the idea of Indo-Pacific region and new mechanisms of cooperation is an opportunity to show to the international community Japan`s active policy. One more incentive for Tokyo`s revitalization in the Indo-Pacific direction is quite unpredictable policy of the current US President D. Trump.

Japan`s National Security Strategy update

It should be said that during the premiership of Shinzo Abe, several policy documents were adopted, replacing those assumed in the 20th century, and several reforms were carried out aimed at lifting post-war restrictions. Changes in the region regularly get fixed in the annually updated Diplomatic Bluebook and White Paper on Defense, which state that Japan’s defense capabilities are growing in response to existing and emerging security challenges in the region and the world. They also spell out practical steps to strengthen the country’s defense. Under Shinzo Abe, the term “proactive pacifism” has started to be used in official documents to emphasize new tendency in state`s external policy.

These steps made it possible for Japan`s Self-Defense Forces(JSDF) to turn intone of the most technologically advanced and modernized armies at least in Asia-Pacific. But its combat experience limited to the participation in peacekeeping operations and military exercises. This implies that Japan`s military would not be able to defend Japan along in the case of full-fledged military conflicts (if any) without the US standing behind the JSDF.

The actual state of affairs gives the possibility for the current cabinet to take steps for further modernization and strengthening of the SDF. Thus, a situation, when the real state of the SDF does not coincide with what is written in the country’s constitution, makes it possible to promote the idea of ​​revising Article 9 to bring the document into conformity with reality. One of the last steps in the modernization of the SDF was the decision to transform the helicopter destroyer JS Izumo into a full-fledged aircraft carrier. This means further, qualitative and quantitative, development of naval self-defense forces — aircraft carriers does not act alone, but as part of a carrier battle group.

Japan-Russia relations and Indo-Pacific narrative

As one of the most noticeable signs of intensification of Tokyo’s foreign policy, it is necessary to note new trends in Japan-Russia relations. As Russian experts note, inability to rely further on Washington entirely in defense matters, “the deterioration of the regional situation in East Asia, connected with the situation on the Korean Peninsula, the emergence of gray zone challenges in the East China and South China Seas, as well as China`s active offensive policy as a whole, in 2014–2017 come to an unacceptable level for Tokyo”. Together, these factors have prompted Tokyo to go closer to Russia, to look for ways of development of bilateral political relations through the intensification of economic cooperation.

Two factors should be marked. Firstly, overall, Japan’s approach towards Russia is in harmony with its will to conduct a fully independent foreign policy without regard to its “overseas big brother`s” advice. And secondly, it allowed Tokyo to start negotiations on a peace treaty and two islands of the Kuril chain, which for Abe moved from the “professional” dimension to the “personal” one. At that, the realization of the first point, — a peace treaty signing seems much more realistic, then islands transferring.

An irritating factor for Moscow is the close military-political cooperation between Washington and Tokyo, which in practical terms means military-technical cooperation. One of the latest demonstrations is Tokyo’s decision to deploy Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Japan in 2025, which, along with the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, is viewed in Moscow as a development of the global America`s missile defense system.Presumably, realization of the Quad initiative will mean intensification of Japan-US cooperation.

How could Japan-Russia bilateral relations fit into the emerging geopolitical construct of the Indo-Pacific region? Abe will have to make a lot of effort not to lose the progress in relations with Russia, especially taking into account imminent expiration of his term as a prime-minister.

Instead of conclusion

In general, Shinzo Abe faces two difficult years before the end of his term as a prime minister: complicated geopolitical landscape in the region, more assertive China in economic and military dimensions, rise of military spending in the region, search for solution of the issue with a peace treaty with Russia (by intensifying efforts in this direction, Abe actually cut off the way to retreat, now in order not to “lose face”, he will have exhausting negotiations, that unlikely will lead to any advance).

In conditions of unpromising settling of the “territorial issue” with Russia in Japan`s way, potential growth of tension in relations with China, caused by its military-political activity, the almost complete exclusion of Japan from the Korean negotiation process, it only remains to make efforts to achieve a great success in economic sphere internally and in the international arena in order to shift Japanese society attention to success stories.

Such a success (albeit a large-scale, but less practical and tangible for Japanese society) could be the Quad as an institutional structure of the emerging Indo-Pacific. But for this, Tokyo needs to offer such principles and mechanisms of interaction through the Quad, which would satisfy the other three participants of the format, would not provoke negative reaction of Russia and China, who will never be a part of the Quad, and which would not exclude ASEAN, whose “centrality” in regional negotiation processes could become questionable.

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China



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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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East Asia

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



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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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East Asia

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



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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