Moscow has long sought a way to counter the U.S.-Japan defense alliance in the Asia-Pacific while reducing its dependency on China as an Asian partner. Improved ties with Tokyo could be the answer.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 70th UN General Assembly session in New York City. Photo: RIA Novosti

Just when it seemed that relations between Japan and Russia appeared to be moving in a positive direction, Russia announced on Mar. 25 that it planned to deploy missile defense systems and military drones on the disputed Kuril Islands by the end of the year. It is precisely these islands that have been the focal point of tensions between Russia and Japan ever since the end of World War II. What remains to be seen is how this latest move impacts relations between Moscow and Tokyo.

For Moscow, any attempts to forge better relations with Japan should be seen as part of its "pivot to the East." Russia's strategy not only seeks to enhance its presence in the Asia-Pacific, but also to avoid limiting its list of partners in East Asia to China. Japan and Russia have especially found ample opportunity to conduct a coordinated response to the most recent security crisis in North Korea. Japan and Russia have also sought to increase their economic and financial ties, which are particularly important for the development of the Russian Far East.

Russia's outreach to Japan indeed goes farther back than the latest developments on the Korean peninsula. One year before the crisis in Ukraine, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe visited Moscow to discuss Japan-Russia collaboration on a variety of fronts. In fact, the Kurile Islands dispute presents perhaps the only true stumbling block to much closer and healthier Japan-Russia ties, although Japan's alignment with the West over Ukraine adds to the stumbling blocks to what would otherwise have been a lone issue hindering a potentially a highly mutually beneficial relationship.

One potential reason for Japan's desires to shore up Japan-Russia ties is the prevention of the possible development of a China-Russia axis. Because the Japan-U.S. alliance represents one of the largest hard power factors in Northeast Asian security, the most plausible alternative is a strengthened China-Russia partnership.

While the containment of China remains the primary purpose of the Japan-U.S. defense apparatus, U.S. strategic containment of Russia also continues to be an important factor in the Japan-U.S. alliance, which comprises one key flank of the American strategic posture in Asia.

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

Therefore, as Japan and Russia seek a greater level of rapprochement and cooperation in the international arena, a major factor in Japan's defense relationship with Russia is Japan's alliance with the United States. In an attempt to maintain its own strong position in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. seeks to limit potential Russian military influence in East Asia.

The United States has long been an important factor in Japan-Russia relations, going back to the Cold War. Nowadays the American strategic posture in Asia is aimed primarily at countering the rise of China. The U.S.'s policy of containing Chinese power in Asia has had a dual effect for Russia. On the one hand, it has served as an impetus for Russia to shore up its security relations with China. On the other hand, this policy has been harmful to greater Russian-Japanese ties, and is therefore detrimental to Russian interests in the Asia-Pacific.

One of the biggest foreign policy goals for Moscow is the creation of a multi-polar world, in which international disputes and issues are resolved on a multilateral basis and not through the domination of one single power. The current state of Japan-U.S. relations in this regard can be described as a microcosm of the Western-centric international order, which runs contrary to Russian designs for the creation of a polycentric global system of interstate relations.

Not only does the Japan-U.S. alliance inhibit this Russian goal of multipolarity, the American military presence in Japan presents its own security dilemma to Russia. A case in point is the establishment of a working missile defense system (such as U.S. Patriot missiles) in Japan. While such a system would purportedly be used by the United States to defend against dangerous Chinese or North Korean activities, such a system could also be used against the Russia's Far Eastern territories.

Tokyo and Washington both insist that this is only to counter threats from North Korea. The proposed system will, however, have not only defensive but also offensive capabilities, thus causing consternation for Russian security officials.

The Japan-U.S. defense alliance extends over several decades, and with talks of relocating the major U.S. Marine base in Okinawa to a different location, the alliance does not seem to be going anywhere any time soon. Yet even with greater cooperation between Japan and Russia in other fields such as diplomacy and investment, Tokyo may find it more difficult to cooperate with Russia on defense issues.

If the government in Tokyo sees it as being better for Japanese interests to build a closer defense relationship with Moscow, its efforts may be hamstrung by its commitment to the U.S., and will require delicate and nimble maneuvering on Japan's part.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.