'New Cold War' creates conundrums in East Asia

TOKYO — Two former senior American officials caused a stir earlier this year with an article in Foreign Affairs headlined, “Containing Russia, Again.”

Their conclusion was stark: “If this package of measures sounds like a prescription for a new Cold War with Russia, it is.” And if another Cold War is indeed in the offing, it will have new and troubling implications for East Asia. Japan, in particular, could find itself in a tight spot.

“Containment” became a buzzword for U.S.-Soviet relations after a 1947 article published under the pseudonym “X” in the same foreign policy journal. Titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” but better known as the “X Article,” it turned out to have been written by George Kennan, an American diplomat and historian.  

During the staredown between the great powers, the U.S. containment strategy pushed Moscow’s military spending into overdrive. Eventually, this led to the union’s collapse. 

Seventy years after Kennan’s piece, authors Robert Blackwill, who served under Republican President George W. Bush, and Philip Gordon, who worked under Democratic President Barack Obama, revived the concept in Foreign Affairs. This comes as relations between the U.S. and Russia deteriorate, with Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin seemingly embarking on another nuclear arms race.

Russian policy experts have taken notice.

The Valdai Discussion Club, a Russian organization that makes policy recommendations, in March published an article titled “How to win in a new Cold War.” It stressed the need to counter the U.S. containment effort.

When it comes to Asia, much has changed since the last Cold War. The U.S. and Japan have boosted their defense capabilities to counter growing threats from North Korea. So this time, the U.S. and Russia would be facing off in East Asia as well as in Europe.

Another big change is China’s ascent and drive for superpower status.

Japan’s diplomatic challenges may be about to become even more complex.

A view of Kunashiri, one of the northern islands at the heart of Japan’s territorial dispute with Russia

  © Reuters

“When it comes to Japan’s future strategy toward Russia, in addition to the main scenario of strengthening the alliance with the U.S., it is time to think about Plan B in advance,” said Taisuke Abiru, an expert on Russian politics and senior representative for the government-affiliated Japan Bank for International Cooperation in Moscow.

There may come a day when the U.S. cannot maintain its overwhelming deterrent against China in East Asia. The worst-case scenario for Japan, in that case, would be to square off against a Sino-Russian alliance.

What Russia really wants is a multipolar order in Asia, rather than a bipolar one led by the U.S. and China. While Tokyo does not have to play into Moscow’s hands, Abiru stressed the need to consider “various options.” Specifically, Abiru proposed deepening the Japan-Russia relationship through “second track” dialogue between intellectuals and others in the private sector.

Japan’s diplomacy toward Russia primarily focuses on negotiations over the so-called Northern Territories — a string of Russia-held islets off northeastern Hokkaido that Japan claims. The dispute has prevented the countries from concluding a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities, and a new Cold War would make reaching a resolution even tougher.

To be sure, Japan needs to strive for progress in the negotiations. But it should not make hasty moves driven by excessive optimism.

Japan has had its hopes up since Putin used the term hikiwake at a news conference in March 2012. The word means “a draw” and is used in judo — a martial art in which Putin holds a black belt. The Russian president seemed to be stressing the need for the two countries to compromise on the territorial issue. 

The dispute concerns Etorofu Island, Kunashiri Island, Shikotan Island and the Habomai islet group, as they are known in Japanese. Japan started thinking that Putin would be willing to cut a deal for two islands, perhaps plus a little extra, or an equal division of land.

But was Japan just taking what it wanted to hear from Putin’s remarks? Some observers think the Russian leader was actually adamant that Japan should be the only one to compromise. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, takes in a judo match with Putin.

  © Reuters

“It is nothing but the Japanese side’s illusion that the territory will be returned if what Putin calls ‘the relationship of trust between the two countries’ is developed,” cautioned Shigeki Hakamada, a professor at the University of Niigata Prefecture and an expert on Russian affairs.

Officials in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government often call him “a tamer of fierce animals,” as he has close ties with both Putin and Trump. But Abe is not doing much taming if he simply greets them warmly.

Lately, Putin has been publicly praising Alexander III, a Russian tsar who played the Great Game against the U.K. in Central Asia in the 19th century. The tsar is known to have issued warnings such as, “Russia has just two allies: the army and the navy.”

The age-old military advice to “know your enemy and know yourself” never becomes outdated. 

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