What is Russia signalling by circumnavigating Japan?

What is Russia signalling by circumnavigating Japan?

Russia has circumnavigated Japan, signalling its role as a great power-player in the Asia-Pacific.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis over 50 years ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense McNamara was known for interpreting the movements of the U.S. and Soviet fleets as being a specific language of its own, signalling the capabilities as well as intentions of each side.

Today, there is much similar signalling in the Asia-Pacific region.  Whether it’s China sending an oil rig off of Vietnamese waters or the U.S. sending two B-2 bombers through China’s newly-declared Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), intentions and resolve are being signalled in the world’s emerging locus of geopolitical and economic power.

Russia has recently joined in this game in a huge way by circumnavigating the entirety of Japan, the most important U.S. ally in the region.

Russia stretches east

As the U.S continues its FONOPS maneuvers in the South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation in the region, it is responding to demand from regional allies to counterbalance China’s rising military capabilities by adding teeth to its “rebalance” policy.  These U.S. actions are critical in that freedom of navigation allows Japan to continue receiving the bulk of its energy imports through the South China Sea.  The U.S. has actually requested Japanese assistance in these maneuvers, but the response has been lukewarm.  This is because the Japanese government recognizes what a tough sell it would be to convince its population that South China Sea affairs directly threaten its survival.

Northeast Asia is an entirely different matter as this is the traditional arena of great power competition in Asia, bringing Japan into direct contact with China, Russia, and both Koreas.  Despite its alliance with the U.S., Japan still has major issues with all of these states and has more than enough on its plate right now without having to deal with Russian flybys.

In addition to overlapping ADIZs with China and South Korea, the other main U.S. ally in the region, it’s still dealing with the legacy of comfort women with these same two states, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute with China, and the recent North Korean hydrogen bomb test.

Who is Russia talking to?

There are three main international audiences Russia is signalling with this latest action: 1) the U.S., 2) China, and last, but by no means least, 3) Japan.  To the U.S., Russia is signalling that while it may not have the global power projection capability of the U.S., it certainly has the reach to affect those areas that are intrinsic to U.S. national security and threaten its most important allies.  Similar to the Syrian gambit, which Russia crafted to signal its role as a great power in a region critical to the U.S. and Europe, it’s doing the same now in the Asia-Pacific theater.

To China, Russia is signalling a more nuanced message because Sino-Russian relations are noticeably better than U.S.-Russian relations.  The first message is that, while technically Russia is more amenable to increasing Chinese influence in Central Asia, leading to cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Economic Road, it also has the ability to impact China’s backyard as well, namely East Asia.

As in Central Asia, Russian influence will primarily have more of a political-military tone, not so much an economic one.  The second message is that even though Russia would like to have more of an impact in Southeast Asian affairs through ASEAN and other bodies, its impact will be much greater in Northeast Asia due to geographic considerations.

To the Japanese, it may appear that the Russian flyby was highly provocative, but it remains a signal nonetheless. First, it’s a reminder that if Japan sides too closely with the West over Ukraine by continuing sanctions, there may be undesirable consequences.  This is comparable to Russia shutting off gas supplies to Ukraine multiple times before the current crisis to signal its displeasure at Ukrainian overtures towards the West.

Second, it’s a message that says if Japan can forge a more independent policy position from the West, there may be benefits in its relations with China and North Korea, as Russia’s relations with both are immeasurably better than Japan’s.

Closing Argument

Most importantly, it’s a test similar to the one it’s giving to Germany.  The test is to see how far Japan’s solidarity with the U.S. will go, even under dire economic conditions.  Both the Russian and Japanese economies are highly complementary in terms of resource supply and demand and technology, and are still suffering in the current crisis.

Easing of sanctions against Russia would solve this problem for both countries.  Summarily, these would be much easier arguments for the Japanese government to make to its people to convince them that various crises in Northeast Asia more directly threaten their survival than in Southeast Asia.  Consequently, these arguments could portend possible foreign policy changes in the future.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is a U.S. Foreign Policy Analyst & Project Manager with Bright Group Consulting, where he provides confidential geopolitical forecasting services regarding various aspects of U.S.-China foreign policy. Additionally, he is an Expert | Geopolitical Intelligence with RANE, an information and advisory services company that connects business leaders to critical risk insights and expertise. He is also an Analyst with the Foreign Policy Association where he writes blogs on foreign policy analysis. As a Senior Analyst and Editor with Global Risk Insights, he provides analysis on political risk & geopolitics. Lastly, he is a Writer for Geopoliticalmonitor Intelligence Corporation, an international intelligence publication which provides comprehensive geopolitical analysis. Having previously consulted in Ukraine, his area of focus is U.S.-Russia relations. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.