Russia, a Northeast Asian country with ambitions to deepen Asia Pacific integration, should keep an eye on tectonic shifts in Asian security and maintain a dynamic equilibrium to the best of its ability.

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, listens to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, during a meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, Philippines, November 19, 2015. Photo: AP

The article is abridged and edited. The original version of the review was first published at Russian International Affairs Council.

The May 6 visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Russia may demonstrate to what extent Russia is important for Japan’s foreign policy, especially given the country’s close ties with the United States. And the cooperation between Washington and Tokyo could grow stronger in Southeast Asia, as indicated by the Hawaii-based East-West Center's recent report "U.S.-Japan Relations and Southeast Asia: Meeting Regional Demands". This may have implications for Russia and its partners in the region.

Signs for stronger collaboration

The security treaty between the U. S. and Japan signed in 1960 is one of the pillars of U.S. strategic presence in Asia and, arguably, the most robust of all. Incidentally, the treaty was signed under Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, the grandfather of Shinzō Abe, and is a crucial landmark for the current head of the Japanese government.

However, until recently, Southeast Asia had not been a region of focus for the U.S.-Japan relationship from the point of view of secuirty, according to the East-West Center's report. It is partly because Northeast Asia has been Japan’s main security problem, with North Korea and China considered the major threats.

Yet today experts call for expanding the scope of the Japan-U.S. collaboration over Southeast Asia. There are some signs for this trend.

First, the region of the South China Sea is becoming increasingly unstable, with major challenges such as tensions over disputed territories and piracy. Southeast Asia accounted for up to 41 percent of all attacks by pirates during the last two decades. Furthermore, U.S. servicemen and the Japan Self-Defense Forces proved quite effective in dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant. In fact, the report proposes to apply this experience to cope with frequent natural disasters in Southeast Asia.

Recommended: "Why Russia needs stronger ties with Japan"

Second, security legislation passed by the Abe cabinet increased Japan’s collective defense capacity, enabling it to pursue broader cooperation with other countries’ armies, especially with the U.S. and Southeast Asia. Specifically, Abe managed to mitigate Japan's self-limitation imposed on the export of defense technologies and equipment. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is expected to become the main beneficiary: The authors of the report call for redoubling efforts to rebuild its defense capacity.

Finally, the U.S. seeks to broaden its security cooperation network in an increasingly multipolar Asia. Specifically, Washington would like to be engaged in various formats to maintain the existing security architecture in good shape.

As the contemporary balance of powers in East Asia is shifting towards China, there should be a certain response from other regional powers, which will build up their defense potential dometically. This trend is especially apparent in Asian countries, where military spending is growing amid global cuts in the defense bill.

However, from the perspective of military equipment exporters, such as Russia, this trend creates additional market opportunities. At the same time, the encouragement of the high conflict potential in the Asia-Pacific region could be a threat for its major stakeholders, including Russia, which has its own interests in the region.

On the other hand, such a situation spurs the bandwagon mentality among weaker states, which prefer to join either the existing hegemony in the region or its emerging rival. This trend is also common for Southeast Asia.

The countries of the region are strengthening their security cooperation, with some of them showing signs of picking an external “patron”. China attracts such states as Cambodia, North Korea, Laos, and Myanmar, while Thailand, the Philippines and others are opting to stick to the United States. In this context, Washington faces several dilemmas.

First, it will need to prevent many countries of the region from joining China while avoiding the role of the “regional policeman” and without irritating Beijing. Second, although the initiative of the U.S. to establish closer ties with Southeast Asia is comparatively stronger than the “local” demand, its top-down promotion based on direct orders will hardly satisfy the Asian-Pacific states.

In this context, there are several reasons why Tokyo can become a regional partner and middleman: The public perception of Japan and Abe in Southeast Asia is positive.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "The Asia-Pacific Military Buildup: Russia’s Response"

Japan’s defense priorities

The importance of pragmatism for the Japanese political elites can be illustrated by the statement of the former Japanese Ambassador to Thailand Hisahiko Okazaki, a champion of a close union with the U.S. and longstanding advisor to both Abe and National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi, Abe’s right-hand man.

“Your country was built on principles. Japan was built on an archipelago,” Okazaki said in in 1992, when asked by an American journalist about Japan’s foreign policy principles. In fact, the diplomat just reiterated the importance of geopolitical imperatives for Tokyo.

Although during the past years the situation in the region has changed, one can still observe the continuity of the strategic vision of Tokyo's right-wing conservatives. Amidst the increasing autonomy of Japan in security issues (which is encouraged by the U.S.), the union of the two countries has grown stronger, and attempts to revise it, for example under former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, failed.

Moreover, according to the University of Heidelberg's Giulio Pugliese, as a result of the expansion of the defense collaboration with the U.S. in 2015 Washington gained additional leverage in its relations with Tokyo in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Japan can rely on U.S. support in its territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Russia, a Northeast Asian country with its ambitions to deepen the Asia-Pacific integration, should keep an eye on tectonic shifts in Asian security and maintain a dynamic equilibrium. Informal ties in East Asia are particularly important. Therefore, it is crucial for Russia to participate in various regional summits and increase its clout.

Russia could benefit from strengthening ties with the Asia Pacific countries without joining any bloc. Russia’s Arctic cooperation with Northeast Asia could be promising in this regard. Arms control on a regional level is also important because a lot will depend on Russia’s military and technical cooperation with ASEAN.

The article is abridged and edited. The original version of the review was first published at Russian International Affairs Council.