Russia Flirted as China Flexed, Documents Show

By Yoree Koh

China’s growing military might compelled Japan and Russia, long at odds over a territorial feud, to take a brief time out from their longstanding tiff in 2007 and take on a more cooperative view towards one another, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released on Tuesday on the WikiLeaks website.

In speaking about the need to bring Russia closer to Japan and the rest of East Asia on regional issues, a Japanese foreign ministry official asked U.S. embassy officials to relay to Washington that “failure to encourage Moscow’s integration increased the risk that Moscow and Beijing might forge a closer strategic partnership – one that could provide unconstructive proposals,” according to a message sent from the U.S. embassy in Tokyo to the State Department on June 14, 2007. The cable adds that Akira Muto, the then-foreign ministry official overseeing Russian matters, said “Japan hoped to ‘drive a wedge between Russia and China,’ Muto noted.”

The Japanese foreign ministry declined to comment on the WikiLeaks release Wednesday, while the Russian Embassy in Japan didn’t immediately return calls.

The cable summarized Mr. Muto’s impressions of a series of high-level meetings between Japan and Russian officials that took place on the heels of China’s controversial and unannounced antisatellite missile test in January 2007, which was met with mixed distress around the world. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his then Russian counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov, agreed a month later to start talks on nuclear energy cooperation and signed wide-ranging accords to promote economic ties between the two countries. The cable cited Russia’s concern about China’s missile test in addition to environmental issues, specifying chemical pollution of the Amur river. Russia believes China is responsible for the pollution of the river, which starts in China as the Songhua.

As the regional security balance shifted in the east, Mr. Muto said, Russia had become more interested in its neighbors. In the same June 14, 2007, cable, the embassy wrote “according to Muto, Russia began to re-evaluate Japanese bilateral ties ‘early last year’ when a new Moscow assessment raised Kremlin concerns about the growth of China.” This involved starting to view its relationship with Japan in a “security context, rather than as simply an economic one.”

These assessments, Mr. Muto surmised, is what led to a spell of unusually friendly meetings with Kremlin dignitaries in the first half of 2007. Russia’s new view seemed, at least temporarily, to include the prickly territorial row over the quartet of islands northeast of Japan’s Hokkaido island known as Kuril in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. The islets were occupied by Soviet troops at the end of World War II but are still claimed by Japan.

“Tokyo officials were pleasantly surprised that Putin failed to say anything negative about bilateral relations with Japan,” said the cable, describing the meeting between former Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mr. Abe on the sidelines of the Group of Eight Summit on June 7, 2007. During the discussion, “Muto asserted that Putin promised to instruct his deputies to ‘accelerate’ the negotiations” regarding the territory.

Meanwhile, Japan asserted that it couldn’t welcome Moscow into the East Asia community on its own, conveying that a bigger U.S. role could help, albeit with caution:  “The main point was that the U.S. and Japan should avoid the perception that the two countries were ‘ganging up’ on Russia, but were instead offering to cooperate.”

But Japan and Russian relations have since chilled. President Dmitry Medvedev became the first leader from Russia or the Soviet Union to step foot on the disputed islands last November, sparking the territorial row anew and steadily intensifying over the ensuing months. But it appears tensions have subsided for now following the March 11 disasters.

While he is still employed at the foreign ministry, Mr. Muto currently serves as the director of the policy coordination division.