Assoc. Prof. at the University of Toronto Phillip Lipscy: “It is mutual interest of Japan and Russia to resolve the territorial dispute and deepen economic cooperation”


In recent years, relations in the Russia-Japan-China triangle have become an increasingly important factor in the political situation of the Asia-Pacific region, and above all in East Asia. The three countries are important trade and economic partners for each other; however, Japan has territorial problems with both Russia and China, which have a serious impact on the balance of power between the three leading players in the region.

The latest changes in the regional and global agenda of the United States, the strengthening of the Russian-Chinese comprehensive military partnership in this region, show that in foreign policy, the main challenge for the new Japanese government, headed by Fumio Kishida, will be the issue of relations between its most important neighbors, China and Russia. Thus, the most important question in such conditions is whether it is possible to maintain a balance of relations in the Russian and Chinese directions.

To find the answer to this and other questions, The International Asia Today brings to your attention the opinion of the Assoc. Prof. of political science at the University Toronto Phillip Lipscy.

Phillip Y. Lipscy
is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He is also Chair in Japanese Politics and Global Affairs and the Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Japan at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

Mr. Phillip, how do you assess the current state of Japan’s relations with neighboring states, especially with great actors like Russia and China within the framework of the geopolitical reality in the region?

Under Prime Minister Abe, Japan placed a high priority on resolving the Kuril Islands dispute with Russia and concluding a peace treaty. However, despite many meetings, there was little tangible progress. Many foreign policy experts in Japan see China as Japan’s primary geopolitical competitor and would prefer to improve relations with Russia, but the territorial dispute remains a key sticking point. From an economic perspective, improved relations with Russia would bring greater access to natural resources, which has always been an important consideration for Japan as a resource-poor nation. With China, there are two contradictory motivations. On the one hand, Japanese defense planners are deeply concerned about China’s military build-up and incursions into what Japan considers its own territorial waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Responding to the rise of China is thus one of the highest national security priorities in Japan. However, the Chinese and Japanese economies remain deeply integrated, and the Japanese business community tends to advocate for stable relations. Reflecting these conflicting perspectives, Japan tends to pursue economic cooperation with China while deepening security cooperation with like-minded partners like the United States, India, and Australia.

How do you think the new Fumio Kishida government will affect the improvements in Japan-Russia economic relations and what are the future perspectives of bilateral relations? Can the relations improve without a resolution of the Kuril Islands dispute?

Kishida was a foreign minister during the Abe government, so he is very familiar with the current state of Japan-Russia relations. There is a strong sense within the Japanese government that the Abe government took a political risk by investing political capital and signalling a willingness to compromise on the Kuril Islands dispute without receiving anything in return. Kishida is therefore likely to adopt a cautious approach much like the Suga government unless there is a strong signal from Russia that a compromise solution will be accepted. Strong relations between Japan and Russia are difficult without a resolution of the territorial dispute, but limited economic cooperation will continue as both sides have a mutual interest in maintaining existing ties.

Recently, there has been a noticeable Sino-Russian integration in the military and defense sphere. Can it be considered as a security threat towards Japan?

Sino-Russian military cooperation is definitely seen as a potential security concern. This is natural because China’s growing military spending and modernization is seen as the primary geopolitical threat for Japan and relations with Russia remain challenging. However, as a practical matter, adding Russia to the equation does not dramatically alter the basic national security context for Japan, which is affected primarily by the power balance between the United States and China and the credibility of the US security guarantee. Compared to their European counterparts, Japanese defense planners tend to put less weight on Russia as a geopolitical threat. Of course, this may begin to change if Sino-Russian military cooperation continues to deepen further. 

In your opinion, can Japan regulate balanced relations with Russia and China? What will be the impact on the U.S.-Japan alliance?

Over the past decade, Japan has been reasonably successful at managing its relations with China. Despite security competition, the two countries remain deeply integrated economically and there have been some positive areas of cooperation on matters like free trade and regional development. Relations with Russia have been more problematic. The US-Japan alliance remains the centerpiece of Japanese security policy, but Japanese policymakers have often been willing to pursue cooperation in other domains even with geopolitical competitors. It would appear to be in the mutual interest of Japan and Russia to resolve the territorial dispute, conclude a peace treaty, and deepen economic and diplomatic cooperation.


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