The disputed Kuril Islands and Russia’s broader Asian strategy
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
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Japanese Ambassador Masaharu Kono, recalled to Tokyo for consultations after President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to one of the disputed Kuril Islands, has returned to Moscow. Some people still wonder what really is behind this diplomatic spat.
Both Russia and Japan claim domestic political reasons as the cause. Tokyo believes Medvedev’s message to his domestic audience was that he is a patriot staunchly protecting every inch of Russian territory. Moscow accuses Japan of being inadequate and inconsistent in its response.

Why was the ambassador recalled to Tokyo? And why did he return so quickly? The move resembles an impulsive reaction, not to this particular issue but to a series of recent anomalies in Japanese foreign policy. There was the strange break in relations with the United States, then there was the palpable Chinese pressure, and then this… 

However, looking at the big picture, there is clear logic to these events.

Asia has entered a period of rapid change driven primarily by China’s growing influence. The country has become a global rather than regional political player. Communist reformer Deng Xiaoping warned against acting in any way that attracts excessive attention, and China has been following this principle for years. Chinese businessmen say modestly that their country is an emerging economy whose only ambition is to resolve internal problems, which will take a great deal of time.

Even if this is the case, China has grown to a scale where intentions no longer matter. The very fact that China is the world’s most populous country, that its economic growth rate is in the double-digits, that it has international reserves estimated at $2 trillion, investments worldwide and a growing military budget all render a change in international relations inevitable.

The world’s political center of gravity will shift to the Asia-Pacific region, raising the stakes in the Asian game. Strangely, this puts Russia and Japan in a similar position, as neither has a strategy or clear understanding of their future place in Asia.
In the 1980s, Japan was considered an economic superpower on the verge of becoming a political giant. But it plunged into deep recession in the early 1990s from which it has yet to recover.

These global changes seemingly gave Japan the chance of becoming an independent political player when the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States, Japan’s traditional patron, set its sights on reforming other parts of the world. But Japan failed to adjust to this new environment; the Chinese factor regained prominence in the U.S. strategy and Japan’s role as a natural counterweight grew again in the late 1990s.

However, the economic interdependence of Japan and China, and that of the United States and China was so strong by then that the classical policy of deterrence became unprofitable and impossible. This turned what had been a neat triangle into a tight knot of interests and contradictions.

The 2008 financial crisis engendered doubts in the strength of the United States and also gave rise to a sense of how much stronger China has grown. Yukio Hatoyama’s government, which came to power in Japan in fall 2009, tried in vain to shift the balance within that triangle by weakening American influence and steering a more independent regional policy, including with regard to China. Hatoyama resigned and his successor is still trying to restore trust in relations with the United States. China, sensing Japan’s political weakness, has ramped up political and economic pressure.

Russia is facing a different, though no less challenging choice. So preoccupied was it by its relations with the Euro-Atlantic region, that the shift of the international community’s attention to Asia had completely passed it by. Russia’s Asian policy was until recently limited to declarations of intent, largely based on its western policy objectives.

It has now become clear that unless Moscow is serious about developing an Asian strategy, it risks falling prey to the strategic objectives of Asia’s main players. This is a tangible threat because less than 25% of Russia’s population live in the Asian part of the country, which constitutes two thirds of its entire territory.

The latest example of Russia’s turning point is Medvedev’s visit to the Kuril Islands. It was intended to demonstrate Russia’s interest in the most outlying part of its Asian territory, an area that previously enjoyed minimal attention from the federal center. Another goal was to remind the world that Russia is an Asian power with clear interests in the region and every intention of maintaining its position.

However, the declaration of intent and the visit to the Kuril Islands are unlikely to make an impression on anyone other than Japan’s highly-strung leadership in Tokyo. Moscow needs a consistent development policy for Siberia and the Russian Far East and should also establish a network of contacts across the Asia-Pacific region. If its Asian strategy remains China-focused, Russia will soon become China’s “kid brother” simply because of the disproportion in their economic might and development rates.

Russia and Japan will never settle their territorial dispute if they continue this never-ending battle for prestige in which neither side is willing to compromise. But even this long-running dispute could be influenced by the changes underway in Asia and the need to develop a new system of checks and balances, provided Moscow and Tokyo are aware of these changes and concede that they are merely secondary players in the big Asian game.

| RIA Novosti