Washington’s two recent big summits occurred as if they were in two different worlds. First, President Donald Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, where the two leaders’ conversation focused on trade and North Korea. Then, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow, where he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traded allegations over the chemical weapons attack in Syria. The two summits were linked by concern about hotspots like Syria and North Korea, yet not by a unified strategy. But so long as it fails to see Russia in an Asian context, Washington will struggle to develop a coherent approach.
America’s friends and allies in Asia, by contrast, realize that U.S. policy toward Russia and Europe and the Middle East shapes Chinese diplomacy. Since annexing Crimea in 2014 and launching a confrontation with the West, Russia has tacked toward China to avoid complete diplomatic isolation. This has strengthened Beijing’s hand in Asia, for example, by reducing Moscow’s ability to adopt positions which contradict China’s priorities.
The U.S. summits in Mar-a-Lago and Moscow, therefore, were watched with great interest in Asia. For example, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pursuing a strategy of improving ties with Russia to ensure Moscow does not align too closely with Beijing. To Japan, it makes no sense to look at relations with Russia and with China in isolation. Japan has promised significant business, energy, and infrastructure investments in Russia. As a result, stalled talks on territorial disputes with Russia — the biggest impediment to full rapprochement — have been resuscitated.
Better ties between Russia and Japan could help reshape diplomacy in Asia. China long knew it had no need to fear friendship between Russia and Japan, given Moscow and Tokyo’s historical disagreements. That is now slowly changing, largely thanks to Abe’s personal courtship of President Vladimir Putin, but also as a result of concrete economic and trade deals that Japan is seeking with Russia to balance its own Asia Pacific strategy. If Moscow and Tokyo improve ties, Russia would have less reason to follow China’s lead in Asia.
While a grand territorial bargain between Tokyo and Moscow over the northern islands remains unlikely, improved relations make strategic sense not only for Russia and Japan, but for the United States, too. Take North Korea: Moscow views the unpredictable, nuclear-armed Pyongyang regime as a nuisance, though it does not want either a U.S.-led reunification of the two Koreas or a bankrupt North Korea under China’s watch. Russia has strong relations with North Korea and a deep understanding of Pyongyang. Given Japanese and U.S. frustration with China’s inability or unwillingness to extract concessions from Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs, it is worth asking whether Russia could play a positive role in restraining North Korean belligerence.
Amid their current confrontation with the West, Russians leaders have tacked sharply toward China in recent years, supporting Beijing in the South China Sea and selling the People’s Liberation Army advanced technology. Yet many Russians worry about China’s long-run plans. Beijing already plays a dominant economic role in Central Asia, which the Kremlin views as within Russia’s sphere of interest. And concerns about Chinese influence in Siberia and the Russian far east, both in terms of economic impact and migration flows, are widespread in Russia.
Yet Russia has failed to connect its long-run concern about Chinese power with a coherent diplomatic strategy in Asia designed to diversify its relationships. Better diplomatic ties with Japan could help Russia realize it has other options besides its relationship with Beijing. More trade ties between Japan and Russia would underscore that China is not the only country interested in investing across Eurasia. In Central Asia, Japan could play a role in ensuring those countries have access to non-Chinese foreign investment. All of this would be good news for the United States — which, despite opposition to the Kremlin’s policy in Europe and elsewhere, has no interest in pushing Russia into China’s arms.
Japanese and Russian interpretations of the Trump-Xi summit underscored the differences with which the two countries currently see the world. Japanese reporting of the Xi visit focused as much on North Korea as on the Syrian airstrikes. Tokyo was relieved by the lack of major blow-ups or breakthroughs. Nothing that would threaten the budding Trump-Abe bromance is good for Japan’s security. By contrast, Russian coverage of the summit focused on Syria rather than the Korean question or the ramifications of the Trump-Xi relationship for Asia-Pacific security. This attitude of ignoring the Asia Pacific region is typical of Russian foreign policy thinking, which remains resolutely focused westward. This is what Tokyo is seeking to change by encouraging Russia to develop a long-term strategy in Asia based on improved ties with Japan.
In the past, Washington has cautioned Japan against improving relations with Moscow lest it be seen as breaking the united front against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Yet just as Japan must realize the value of unified positions on issues such as Ukraine and Syria, Washington should consider the long-term when looking at Tokyo’s efforts to mend ties with Moscow. On some issues of Asia-Pacific security, the United States and Russia might even find that they agree. Yet Washington too often only sees Russia through a European lens. Japan’s effort to rebuild its relations with Moscow just might help us see Russia and Asia in a new light.
Chris Miller, PhD is Associate Director of Grand Strategy at Yale University and a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of the recently released German Marshall Fund Policy Brief on Japanese-Russian relations.
Joshua W. Walker, PhD (@drjwalk) is Senior Vice President at APCO Worldwide and a Transatlantic Fellow leading the Japan work at the German Marshall Fund of the United States where he is the author of another recent policy brief on Japan and Russia.