OPINION: Russia’s pivot to Tokyo courtesy of Trump

Manuel L. Quezon III

Posted at Nov 15 2016 10:52 PM

The landmark documentary “The Cold War” and its episode on the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Watch the whole thing, but pay particular attention to the scenes in 1969 of Chinese attacking Russians in Soviet East Asia from 34:17 to 38:33.

All eyes in our part of the world are on China, Japan and America as president-elect Donald Trump starts putting his administration-to-be together. We should consider another: Russia. All four –China, Russia, Japan, and the United States—are entangled by history. But the main players in our story are China and Russia with America and Japan as the supporting cast in this unfolding drama.

We forget that both Russia and China are former empires with leaders and peoples who still dwell on past glories and past humiliations. 

Reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s gripping The Romanovs 1613-1918, aside from of course telling the story of the last imperial dynasty, traces the growth of the Russian Empire in three directions. Towards Europe, with the conquest of Finland and much of Poland; towards the Ottoman Empire, with the glittering dream of one day ruling Constantinople; and towards the Far East, with Manchuria and Korea as mouthwatering potential prizes. Expansion towards Europe was halted by the rise of Prussia (later, Germany); towards the Ottoman lands by the intervention of the United Kingdom and Austria; and towards the Far East, by the rise of Japan.

Montefiore’s closing chapters deal with the last, ill-fated Czar, Nicholas II who was bedazzled by a courtier’s weaving tales of the empire to be won in the Far East. Filled with disdain for the Japanese, Russia blundered into war –and a humiliating defeat—at the hands of the Japanese.

After the fall of the Russian monarchy, the Soviet Union managed to hold its own against the Japanese, dealing them such a bloody nose in 1939 that Japan didn’t dare to declare war when Hitler attacked Russia in 1941. Russia, facing a German invasion, preferred peace on its Far East borders so it could bring troops from Siberia to fight the Germans. But at the Yalta Conference in 1944, worried about potentially vast casualties in an American invasion of Japan, President Roosevelt lobbied Joseph Stalin to declare war on Japan in exchange for certain concessions, including the Southern portion of the Sakhalin and the Kuril islands. A Soviet invasion of Manchuria would tie up Japanese troops, and act as insurance since the Americans weren’t sure, at that point, if the atom bomb would work.

As it turned out, the atom bomb did work and so the USSR was only able to seize the South Kuril islands before the war ended. The Americans also swiftly blocked the Russians from having any participation in the occupation of Japan, even as Russia’s victorious forces in Manchuria led to communist governments in Mongolia and North Korea (and victory for Chinese communists by 1949). The result? Russia and Japan have never concluded a peace treaty ending World War II.

But things are about to change. Last June, Russia and Japan announced they would begin talks on a peace treaty to formally end World War II. Last October, Vladimir Putin publicly proposed connecting Hokkaido to the Trans-Siberian Railway, which when you think of it, offers both Russia and Japan a kind of alternative Silk Road (China’s ambitious plan to have a network of interconnected infrastructure links to bring oil, gas, and goods from the West to the East, and to spur trade). Just this month, the Russians announced they are prepared to undertake “joint economic activity” with Japan in the Kurils. According to a Reuters report, what is driving the two countries to compromise and cooperate is anxiety over North Korea, uncertainty over the United States, and rivalry with China. 

The potential solution, according to the same report, is ingenious: “Russia could salve Japanese honor by returning the two smaller islets to Japan with no strings attached.” According to Reuters, “This gesture would give Abe the political breathing room to open a formal dialogue on the remaining two larger islands. There, an arrangement could be reached to share sovereignty. Russia could transfer formal ownership to Japan and receive in exchange a permanent no-cost lease on its military bases. The Kremlin could thus maintain a troop presence, as a guarantee of its national security interests. Alternatively, Japan and Russia could split the difference, each taking one large island.”

It’s important to consider that this sort of win-win was impossible during the Cold War: “the Kremlin considered the Kuril Islands vital to its Pacific fleet in case of a U.S. blockade. Any talk of territorial and political settlement with Japan presented unacceptable implications for the military balance with the United States. 

At the same time, Japanese leaders were reluctant to concede the permanent loss of the Kurils because they have lost so much territory in other areas,” Reuters reported. The thawing of relations and the finding of common ground has been going on since 2013, spurred on by meetings between Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Russian President Putin. But when the West imposed sanctions on Russia after it annexed the Crimea in 2014, Russia embarked on a kind of pivot to China, enticed by Chinese investments and loans.

Now things are different. Russia has better prospects with a Trump administration, which could basically drop human rights as a factor in US foreign policy, demand NATO assume more of the financial burden of the alliance, and recognize, if not officially then unofficially, both current Russian gains and its historic claim to an unchallenged sphere of influence in nations along its borders. All these factors coming together seems to have given Russia the confidence to resume its plans to reach an agreement with Japan in order to contain China.

And here we have to look at how Russian and Chinese relations have been hostile much longer historically, than they’ve ever been with Japan.

Russia and China for their part, have clashed on and off since the 1600s started encroaching into the neighborhood of Mongolia: as one summary puts it, “By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Russians had seized a total 1.4 million square kilometers, and another 1.5 million by 1900. The Russians codified these gains through a series of 'unequal treaties,' as current Chinese histories call them.” China’s modern narrative is based not just on remembering these past humiliations, but vowing to overcome them, and surpass the countries that had once inflicted such shame on China.

And there are more recent grievances and tensions, too. In March, 1969 (after years of simmering tensions), Chinese troops ambushed Russian soldiers in a place known as Damansky Island in the Ussuri River, leaving 32 Russians dead. The Russians fired artillery into China, and at the end of it all, 60 Russians and 800 Chinese died. Things got to the point where Russia seriously considered launching a nuclear attack on China, and in turn, China made a pivot to the United States which culminated in Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing.

Russia, for its part, also dreams of past imperial glory, and has also vowed to compensate for the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union. 

When it comes to China, the conquests of the 19th century, the tensions of the 1960s, and the steep decline of Russia in the 1990s have combined to make the Russians paranoid of losing their territories bordering China to waves of Chinese settlers; while the Chinese, in turn, dream of expanding into Siberia, Russia’s vast larder of mineral and timber reserves. 

So while Russia needed Chinese money to compensate for Western sanctions, it fears ending up a Chinese satellite, supplying raw materials to a China whose people steadily take over under-populated Russian lands. Trump could give Russia the breathing room it needs to secure its borders with China, while Japan could end up as a substitute for Chinese money and loans.

Even as our president seems to be preparing to attend APEC in Peru, he found time to meet with Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev. You have to wonder what instructions that ambassador has received from Moscow. China is facing the possibility of a trade war with the USA. Russia, formerly isolated due to Western sanctions, and which had started its own pivot to China, now has the chance to redo its relationship with America, which means it doesn’t need China like it did. And so it is on the verge of --guess what, finally, only now-- ending World War II with Japan. 

Russia and Japan want to be friends because they both fear China and because Russia is looking forward to a better relationship with America while Japan wants to prepare for a potential rocky road with America by making peace with Russia so it can concentrate on China. And even Japan and South Korea, worried about America, are making friends to partner against China.

Where does this leave the Philippines? 

The first thing is we have to understand is that China and Russia almost went to nuclear war in 1969 and have been historic enemies since the 1600s. 

The second thing we have to understand is America is poised to be aggressive to China and has reiterated its support to South Korea and Australia, while Japan’s Prime Minister is meeting Trump on his way to APEC. 

The third thing we have to realize is the idea of the Philippines being in a kind of trio against the world with Russia and China, was something neither the Chinese nor the Russians probably considered more than sheer lunacy.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.