In a post-Cold War world, it’s not completely unexpected that Japan and Russia would search out a potential relationship with each other.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk in a hall during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, Friday, May 6, 2016. Photo: AP
The ostensible rapprochement between Japan and Russia recently has raised eyebrows among political observers. It seems inconceivable that a long-standing U.S. ally such as Japan would reach out to one of the U.S.'s largest strategic rivals.
From a policy standpoint, however, a closer relationship between Japan and Russia makes a lot of sense. A confident and assertive Japan, under the leadership of the avowedly nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is ready to pursue a more independent foreign policy, one that is diversified as opposed to one-sided. Abe, it seems, is not going to allow Japan to be fettered by Japan's treaty alliance with the U.S.
Given the vast enmity between China and Japan, Russia is the only other large power in East Asia with which Japan can build a solid relationship so as not to be unilaterally linked to the United States. To be sure, the Russian-Japanese territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands continues and seems to be going nowhere. Yet it is more of an irritant and one that Moscow and Tokyo have been willing to compartmentalize rather than transform into an imminent threat.
At an official level, the U.S. Department of State has expressed an understanding attitude toward these events. Mark Toner, a State Department spokesperson, has asserted that the U.S. does not believe there is any conflict of interest between Japan having close ties with the U.S. and warmer ties with Russia.
Also read: "Why Russia needs stronger ties with Japan"
Yet behind the diplomatic façade of understanding, there may be worries among senior U.S. officials that have not been expressed publicly. The media have portrayed this phenomenon largely in terms of Japan defying the established order of global relations. One headline claimed that Abe was "breaking ranks" with U.S. President Barack Obama by meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Obama had asked Abe not to meet with the Russian head of state.
One likely reason why this turn of events in Japan's relationship with Russia has raised eyebrows is the persistence of Cold War-style realism as a major framework for viewing global affairs. It is understandable that observers would view things through the lens of the Cold War. This period in history only "officially" ended a mere 25 years ago. However, eras do not change clearly and precisely.
An alternate perception is that the United States is an imperial-like power in global affairs. Robert D. Kaplan, a major proponent of this notion, notes that it is deeply unpopular among policy elites in Washington to publicly assert the idea of an American empire, given the pejorative overtones the term "empire" connotes. Nevertheless, American dismay at Japanese policy overtures toward Russia betrays a strong if unacknowledged undercurrent of this imperial mentality. The idea is that because the United States has provided security to Japan for over seven decades, in return Japan should be unswervingly loyal to the U.S.
The majority of Americans alive today are used to one of two orders in international relations - either with the United States as one of two superpowers, or one in which the U.S. is the globe's sole superpower. During this time, divisions were clearly delineated between East, West and nonaligned. Even as the Cold War reality has subsided, Americans today still view the world as being fundamentally divided between those countries that are aligned with the U.S. and those that are not.
For those countries within the fold of American alignment, it is expected that they wouldn't reach out toward America's rivals. Yet, that ignores the fact that, throughout much of history, firm divisions of this type were an anomaly in international relations. Rather, global powers participated in alliance politics based on a constantly shifting set of circumstances.
Japan and Russia fought a bitter (and for Russia, humiliating) war in 1904-05, only for Russia to join the Triple Entente between France, Russia and the United Kingdom in 1907. The UK, by way of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, brought Japan and Russia together in the common cause of balancing against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Just as Cold War politics do not constitute an adequate analytical framework, fin-de-siècle dynamics in international relations do not comprise a sufficient alternative perspective. Yet from this, it is possible to receive a powerful and much-needed reminder of the dynamic nature of interstate relations in past eras.
It appears that, as recent developments in Japan-Russia ties demonstrate, policymakers and other officials must learn to be comfortable with a new reality. Namely, that while long-standing alliances persist, they will not necessarily consist of straightjacketed interactions.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.