The year 2020 was a watershed period for global politics. In particular, the exceedingly polarized presidential election in the United States will have major consequences for U.S. Asia policy. The return of the Democrats to the White House brings into question future policy on North Korea and the potential deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the Indo-Pacific region. The outlook for long-term arms control remains uncertain.

The exacerbation of U.S.-Chinese naval rivalry, as well as the threat of destabilization in the South China Sea and around Taiwan, jeopardizes the security of maritime channels through which Japan and South Korea receive energy resources, food, and other vital supplies.      

At a more local level, the cabinet change in Japan and the constitutional referendum in Russia—which took away Moscow’s ability to sign international agreements that envisage territorial concessions—were crucial for Russo-Japanese relations.

Moscow and Tokyo have shown keen interest in developing a regional security dialogue for many years. In November 2013, the Russian and Japanese foreign and defense ministers met in a two-plus-two format for the first time. Following a break related to the Ukraine crisis, two-plus-two meetings were resumed in 2017, and a total of four such consultations were held before the outbreak of the new coronavirus pandemic.

The desire for a regional security dialogue is natural for two large, neighboring states. Furthermore, gradual destabilization and growing military tensions in East Asia increase the importance of such dialogue, despite existing complications and limitations.

However, the new Russian constitution that went into effect following the summer 2020 nationwide vote put additional stress on bilateral relations with its impact on the long-running territorial dispute over the South Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territories). The constitution now prohibits actions aimed at relinquishing any Russian territory except in cases of delimitation, demarcation, or re-demarcation.

Commenting on this topic in February 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia would like to develop relations with Japan, but would not do anything that contradicts the constitution. A day later, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato asserted that talks with Russia on the peace treaty would continue, and that Japan still holds the position that such a treaty should be signed after the territorial dispute is resolved.

No matter how bleak the prospects of a peace treaty, negotiations on it will likely drag on—with little progress and no end in sight—because the two sides cannot allow themselves to announce that the talks are over.

In the absence of tangible prospects for resolving the dispute, the key irritant in Russo-Japanese relations is the growing Russian military contingent on the disputed islands. This dynamic dates back to the 2010s, and began within the framework of overall Russian military reform as a planned re-equipment of troops already in place. Going forward, new formations armed with new types of weapons were dispatched to the islands, including Bal and Bastion anti-ship missile systems in 2016 and S-300V4 air defense missile systems in 2020.

Japan has questioned the growing Russian military presence on the islands during the two-plus-two consultations and other talks. However, Russia appears to presume that these actions will not have a lasting impact on its relations with Japan.

In addition to wanting to demonstrate its resolute stance on the territorial dispute, Russia may be motivated to grow its presence in the region due to its continued standoff with the United States and the overall increase in tensions in Northeast Asia. It is possible that Russia is envisaging and preparing for hostile actions that might come not so much from Japan as from the United States.

Moscow and Washington extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for another five years in the first weeks of Joe Biden’s presidency. However, this extension may have only delayed and not averted the disintegration of the existing arms control system. In addition to traditional challenges in U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations, new ones may arise. For example, China’s potential ascent to the position of a third nuclear superpower requires a new approach to ensuring strategic stability.

Following the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the possible deployment of intermediate-range missiles is a topic of great concern. U.S. withdrawal from the treaty was accompanied by statements from Trump administration officials about plans to deploy intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles in the Indo-Pacific region. The Biden administration has not clarified its position on such deployment, but the first steps toward pulling out from the treaty and developing these missile systems were made under the Obama administration, and the implementation of these plans may continue.

Russian officials, including President Putin, have repeatedly stated that although Russia started to develop intermediate-range missiles following the termination of the INF Treaty, it would not deploy them first; however, it would respond in a timely manner to the deployment of such missiles near its borders. Statements by Russian officials suggest that Russia may deploy missiles to regions where corresponding U.S. missiles are placed.  

Japan, along with South Korea and Australia, has been mentioned as a possible site for U.S. missile placement in Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs statements cautioning against such deployment. Even though U.S. intermediate-range missiles in Asia would be a much bigger threat to China than to Russia, Moscow would not stand idly by if the United States deployed missiles in Northeast Asia. Moscow and Tokyo should consider this potential scenario in the same way they already discuss missile defense.

Japan’s production of more and more advanced weapons systems also makes it important to address new military technologies in Asia. Among other projects, Japan is reported to have two programs to develop hypersonic weapons: a hypersonic cruise missile and a ballistic missile with a hyper-velocity gliding projectile.

East Asia has become center stage for great power competition. Countries with interests in the region—China, Russia, the United States, Japan, and South Korea—are the main participants in today’s advanced military technologies race. In these conditions, it is vital for Moscow and Tokyo to minimize the potential damage to bilateral relations from any actions that Russia might take to ensure its security with respect to the United States, or Japan—with respect to China and North Korea.

Moscow’s communication channels with Washington may be disrupted, but its channels with Pyongyang appear to remain open, and this also holds growing importance for the dialogue between Russia and Japan.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula could change rapidly in the coming months or years if the United States returns to a “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea. The possibility that Pyongyang could spark a crisis on the peninsula cannot be ruled out either: in recent years, North Korea has made significant progress in the development of military technologies, but the extreme measures Pyongyang took to isolate the country during the COVID-19 pandemic had a dire effect on its economy. It will remain critical for Japan and Russia to exchange information on North Korea in order to develop an optimal course in the new conditions.

As the destabilization of the Indo-Pacific region continues and disagreements between key players escalate, the Russo-Japanese security dialogue may acquire growing significance. Its development could advance overall bilateral relations, making up for the stagnation and disappointment resulting from lack of progress on a peace treaty.

  • Vassily Kashin