2017 Forecast: East Asia
The Russian-Japanese detente will incrementally continue, but the future of Northeast Asia is contingent on what happens with the two Koreas, as this could either lead to the formation of a Regional Quartet or two separate blocs.
The Russian-Japanese Rapprochement
The author accurately forecast at the end of 2015 that Russia and Japan would enter into an historic rapprochement with one another, and also got it right in the sense that a limited form of the more broadly proposed Northern Islands Socio-Economic Condominium (NISEC) would be agreed upon during Putin’s landmark visit to the islands earlier this month. For more information about the dynamics of this evolving partnership, the reader is encouraged to peruse the author’s earlier work about how “Russia’s Diplomatic Balancing Act In Asia Is To The Benefit Of Its Chinese Ally”, but in sum, Moscow and Tokyo are mutually engaging one another in order to promote their respective grand strategic interests. Russia wants to diversify its own Pivot to Asia, while Japan is eager to invest in Russia’s Far East and gain enhanced access to the Trans-Siberian Railway in order to partially compete with China’s New Silk Roads to Europe. Additionally, both countries want to put their lingering World War II-era dispute behind them in order to belatedly commence a forward-looking mutually beneficial partnership. The less that Russia has to worry about Japan and vice-versa, the more that each country can concentrate on more constructive issues such as infrastructural development and the like.
There’s no telling how long it’ll take for Russia and Japan to put a formal end to what Tokyo calls the “Kuril Islands dispute”, and President Putin said that both sides have only just begun what will probably be a long process towards this end, though one which will likely culminate in the contentious territory becoming a “unifying element” in their bilateral relations. Moscow’s main concern is that if it proceeds with the Soviet-era 1956 proposed settlement and hands over some of the ‘outer’ islands/rocks to Tokyo (Shikotan and the Habomai Islands), that Washington will be quick to symbolically seize upon this by victoriously forcing Japan to host American troops on these territories, which would be an audacious move that would rile the Russians and destroy the trust which they thought they had gained with the Japanese. Technically speaking, Russian security wouldn’t be jeopardized in the sense that some alarmists suspect that it would be because it’s really Kunashir and Iturup which matter in terms of protecting the Sea of Okhotsk and keeping it “closed” to foreign military vessels, and the US could more effectively confront Russia if it deployed assets to the much larger northern island of Hokkaido anyhow, but the symbolic stab in the back by Japan would be too much for Russia to handle and would instantly destroy their détente, just as the US would want it to.
The Korea Conditionals
Accepting that Russia and Japan will most likely continue along the positive trajectory that they’ve historically set out on this year and advance their incipient partnership with one another, the next major regional factor that must be looked at in terms of forecasting the future of Northeast Asia is the situation in the two Koreas. North Korea conducted two nuclear tests in 2016 and was even put under UNSC sanctions because of them, signifying that both Russia and importantly China had enough of its antics and sought to symbolically bring it in line. The author wrote more about this in a Sputnik piece from earlier this year, in which it was remarked that North Korea’s security concerns are entirely legitimate, but that it is playing the role of a “useful idiot” in predictably responding to each and every one of the US’ provocations just like Washington expects it to.
This in turn has inadvertently given the US the ‘justification’ to continue with its heightened militarization in the region under the guise of “defending against the North Korean threat”, which in practice just translates to more “missile defense” systems which can one day be used as the precedent for building up a more formidable “deterrence” system aimed at negating Russia and China’s nuclear second-strike capabilities. It’s for this latter reason of maximum strategic importance and relevance to global stability that both Eurasian Great Powers have joined forces in condemning North Korea for its behavior (however justified it is in terms of its sovereign rights) and announced that they will be working together in crafting their own retaliatory missile defense shield if the US keeps up its strategic aggression.
Should North Korea’s nuclear testing and missile diplomacy continue, then it’s unlikely that relations with South Korea would ever improve, but the coming year will be extremely important in possibly ushering in a breakthrough for peninsular affairs. This is because President Park’s de-facto (not yet de-jure) impeachment has created a situation whereby the interim government in Seoul and its potential successor might be much more amenable to Russia and China’s urgings that it drop the prior administration’s controversial decision to host the US’ THAAD “missile defense” system. If South Korea opts for peace and turns away from its strategic sabre rattling, then it would rejuvenate Seoul’s relations with Moscow and Beijing and make it much easier for them all to cooperate in dealing with Pyongyang, as a pragmatic government in the South’s “Blue House” could potentially see the error in blindly siding with the US’ bellicosity and instead choose to be much more professional and nuanced with its policies.
Regional Quartet Or Two Blocs?
The future geostrategic makeup of Northeast Asia is conditional on the situation with the two Koreas, and either of them could spoil the optimal scenario of a Regional Quartet. To begin with, this vision spells out a future whereby Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea shun the US’ diplomatic-strategic interventionism and decide amongst themselves how to best handle North Korea. Without Washington’s disruptive provocations, there’s a much higher likelihood that a sustainable solution can be reached which mitigates the “threat” by uprooting it from its source, namely by convincing Tokyo and Seoul of the need to refrain from enabling the aggressive actions of their US military occupiers. It’s of course much easier said than done, and the possibility of this scenario unfolding isn’t too high, but the reason why it’s being discussed is because of the exciting opportunities that are opening up as a result of the Russian-Japanese rapprochement, which if successful, would allow Moscow to serve as a trusted intermediary balancer between Beijing and its Tokyo rival. This in turn might facilitate the two coming to an implicit agreement with one another at least as it relates to the Koreas (the East China Sea and ASEAN are much less likely), which could go a long way in positively pressuring Seoul to “jump onboard” and give the Regional Quartet framework a try.
Pretty much, what’s being proposed for Northeast Asia is the same game-changing diplomacy being applied in the Mideast with the Tripartite, but it’s dependent on whatever the two Koreas end up doing in the near future. South Korea could spoil it all by going forward with THAAD, which is a distinct possibility, and thus preclude any realistic chance that Russia and China could make the pragmatic strategic inroads with it which would be necessary for bringing Seoul into the Regional Quartet. Moreover, if North Korea refuses to listen to the guidance of its multipolar Great Power partners and continues to unilaterally respond to the US’ provocations however it sees fit, then it would contribute to an atmosphere of regional tensions and mistrust that would severely impede the Quartet’s consolidation. Relatedly, a good amount of trust between Russia and Japan is also a necessary precondition for this scenario in order that the two neighbors feel comfortable with one another to the point of mildly coordinating their regional policies. Moscow knows that Tokyo and Seoul are still at odds with one another over the legacy of World War II and the Japanese colonial occupation of the Koreas, so it’s betting that the US’ envisioned designs of uniting the two into a “Lead From Behind” security system will never fully materialize.
On the other hand, if the multipolar plan for a Regional Quartet (the Northeast Asian application of the game-changing Tripartite framework in the Mideast) doesn’t enter into fruition, then the most likely alternative is the gradual shaping of two distinct blocs of forces, which is actually already occurring right now. On the one side stand Russia and China, both of which are obligated out of grand strategic concerns to “support” (but not necessarily ally with or condone) North Korea, while the opposite bloc is composed of Japan, South Korea, and the US. Both formations aren’t multilaterally integrated with one another and probably never will be, with the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership representing the core of the former while a dual system of bilateral American-Japanese and American-South Korean partnerships comprises the latter.
South Korea has positive economic relations with Russia and China, but has yet to translate those into workably close political ones, and the THAAD decision doesn’t help at all, so it’s unlikely that it could be the necessary bridge to link the two blocs together and hopefully defuse tensions if they ever got too hot. This role, however, could importantly be played by Russia, seeing as how it’s expected to continue incrementally moving forward with its rapprochement with Japan, thus giving Moscow a minor say and mild sway over the US’ “unsinkable aircraft carrier”. Although relatively unimpressive in and of itself, in the context of Northeast Asian relations and the visible drift towards to separate blocs, this position could serve to be invaluable in the future and a role of considerable significance during times of heated crisis. Therefore, although the Regional Quartet is the most ideal of the two scenarios, it’s much more likely that the Two Bloc one will end up happening instead, though it doesn’t necessarily have to result in a deadlock so long as Russia can successfully leverage its incipient partnership with Japan in order to keep tensions to their most realistic minimum and relatively counteract the US’ provocative intentions in stirring up more regional unrest.