Friday, March 4, 2011

Kurils: The great game in Asia-Pacific

Kurils: The great game in Asia-Pacific
By M K Bhadrakumar

The Russian decision this week to deploy cruise missiles on the disputed South Kuril Islands significantly takes forward what began as a diplomatic row with Japan last November to a new level of activity. When the row erupted in November following the visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the islands, the first-ever such trip by a Russian (or Soviet) head of state, Moscow's narrative was that it was a symbolic assertion of sovereignty that came naturally and spontaneously.

"There are so many picturesque places in Russia. Kunashir" - that was what Medvedev noted when he uploaded on his Twitter account soon after landing. The narrative has since changed.

And from the diplomatic realm, the Russian-Japanese row has steadily spread to the political and military planes through the past two to three months. The latest move to deploy the cruise missiles underscores that somewhere in the deep background there was all along a compelling urgency in Moscow's moves on the chessboard in terms of the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. After all, Moscow was moving with great deliberation.

Inalienable part
At the root of it is Tokyo's refusal to give up its claim over four Kuril Islands - Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai - which were annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II, which in turn has prevented the two powers from signing a peace treaty to end hostilities.

But it is much more than about a territorial dispute. This is where some commentators tend to draw simplistic but not altogether meaningless parallels with the precipitate moves by a weak czar in the Kremlin 100 years ago. Driven by complex motivations of reviving Russian nationalism and Russian expansionism in the Far East against a backdrop of great fluidity in the regional politics and contending with rival imperial ambitions, Czar Nicholas II brought the roof down on everyone including himself in 1905. No one predicts another Russo-Japanese war anytime soon.

Nor is the long-running Kuril Islands dispute hardly providing scope for a resolution anytime soon. So, why has Russia suddenly become so assertive on this sensitive issue? Prima facie, the precipitate Kremlin moves do not even square with the broad thrust of Medvedev's foreign policy to form "modernization alliances" with the West and Japan and woo foreign investments and technology for Russia's modernization and innovation.

There is always scope for a point of view that somewhat like Csar Nicholas, Medvedev blundered into the current row, which is really only a storm in a tea cup. According to this version, all that Russia is interested in is to accelerate the development of its far-eastern region, which naturally involves strengthening its defenses as well, and that purpose could have been achieved by Medvedev deputing a lower ranking official to travel to the Kurils last November, but he made a mistake by volunteering himself.

Another spin is that Moscow was simply getting fed up with the dispute with Japan showing no signs of being in any tearing hurry to resolve it and Medvedev simply ''sped up the process''. Russians brood too much. But the flaw in this viewpoint is that Medvedev also deputed several officials to follow up on his footsteps, including Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and then himself began harping on a massive beefing up of the Russian military presence on the islands.

Meanwhile, a new template also began appearing in the Russian narrative: the Kuril dispute is actually Russia's Falkland problem. The implication is that like Argentina vis-a-vis Britain, Japan is using the dispute with Russia ''as a tool for shifting public attention away from domestic problems and onto a struggle against an external enemy'', to quote a Moscow analyst. That is to say, Japan too may one day choose the Kurils, which is weakly defended by Russia, as a soft target to vent out aggression.

Woven into this are two minor arguments: first, Russia, too needs, an ''Iron Lady'' like former British premier Margaret Thatcher in the Kremlin, which, figuratively speaking, means a political leadership with the grit to ''uphold the interests and dignity of Russia'' and the determination to demonstrate that Russia will do what it takes to uphold its interests and territorial integrity.

Arming the Kurils
Russian scholars have been quick to interpret that there is an increased level of aggressiveness lately on the part of Japan. To quote Viktor Pavlyatenko of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of the Far East, "Japan's political elite has created a highly charged atmosphere around this territorial dispute." In the words of another analyst, Mikhail Barabanov:
Russia would do well to remember Japan's predilection for starting wars with sudden well-planned attacks, a tactic it has used in every war it has ever waged. Japan's proximity to the islands allows it to rapidly deliver cargo and reinforcements to landed troops, while backing them up with massive air support from attack helicopters. The Japanese military are well trained and highly motivated. They possess huge quantities of the latest weapons and equipment. They have unique type-96 multi-purpose missiles and HATM-6 systems with hammer-like chassis, which could be delivered to the islands using light transport. These would equally be effective against tanks and artillery. This, combined with Japan's air superiority and wide use of precision weapons, would allow the Japanese to smash the defensive forces on the islands much faster and easier than we might think."
The paradox is that equally, both the Russian interpretation of Japanese intentions as well as Moscow's military capability to defend the Kurils may be open to questioning.

Clearly, it is preposterous to suggest that Japan would attack Russia. But then, military planning must rest on the worst-case scenario. Indeed, the proximity of the islands to Japan's coast makes them extremely difficult to defend. Russian defenses can be easily overrun, in principle, in the event of a massive sneak night-time attack using fast motorboats.

Russia has some ill-equipped 3,500 troops on the islands at present. Its nearest airfields with combat aircraft are located on Sakhalin and Kamchatka and Japan would have dominance of the air in any conflict. The Russian thinking is to strengthen the defenses in order to buy time in the event of an attack so as to mobilize large-scale landings of reinforcements and also to develop a viable offensive capability to mount air and missile strike over Japan's entire territory.

Thus, this week's Russian move to fortify the Kurils with missiles takes the November-born rhetoric to the plane of a concrete military step. It has been carefully planned. The Yakhont missile has a range of 200-300 kilometers at supersonic speed and can reach parts of Japan's Hokkaido. The Tor-M2 system can fire four missiles simultaneously at four different targets. Russia also plans to deploy Mi28 helicopters, which carry anti-tank missiles. Senior Russian commanders have hinted that the deployments may even include the formidable S-400 Triumf air defense systems.

Tokyo has reacted that the Russian deployment is "very regrettable" and that it is keeping a "close watch on Russia's military trends in the Far East". Kyodo predicted that the Russian move would ''doubtlessly provoke a backlash from Japan." Quite obviously, the steady slide in Russo-Japanese ties since Tokyo published in 2008 new guidelines for school textbooks asserting Japanese sovereignty over the Kuril islands, has sharply escalated.

The hardening of the Russian position was apparent in the Foreign Ministry statement in Moscow on February 6 that Japan should adopt a "sober and balanced attitude to the realities. We hope the objective territorial realities, worked out following World War II and enshrined in the UN Charter will prevail in Tokyo. Stopping the artificial emphasis on the 'island' issue would help to create a calm and constructive atmosphere for Japanese-Russian dialogue."

True, the right-wing Japanese nationalists have played a big part in spurning Russian diplomatic overtures. Also, as Dmitry Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie put it, "Japan's politically weak short-duration cabinets find it difficult or impossible to show strategic vision and tactical flexibility to move toward agreement with Russia." To add to it, on Moscow's part, too, "2011-2012 is the time of parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia, time to demonstrate toughness and strength, rather than flexibility and willingness to reach a compromise."

Strategic crux
However, they all ultimately happen to be foreplay. Most certainly, Russians have a "big picture", too, in their calculus. After all, they possess a historical consciousness of immense poignancy with regard to Japan and China. Recently, in a smart move, Moscow offered cooperation with China in the development of the Kurils. Will China bite? Or more appropriately, has it quietly bitten without publicity? Unlikely, though.

The implications are obvious. Trenin pointed out, "Whoever agrees to invest there [Kurils] must accept a degree of long-term risk of losing the title [of Japan's friendship] and also short-term sanctions from Tokyo. China might decide to step in, using the investment as a geopolitical chip, as a means to drive a wedge even deeper between Russia and Japan and trying Moscow closer to Beijing. It will be interesting to see whether China does so, maybe using Hong Kong as a proxy."

Chinese commentaries view the Russian moves on the Kurils in recent months as the "crux of Russia's strategy for its far East and beyond that to the Asia-Pacific region". The editor of the People's Daily, writing for Global Ties, virtually signaled that Beijing would be extremely wary of getting drawn into the bear trap. Xinhua summed up the geopolitics of the Russian moves:
The [Kuril] islands are located in a key geographic position where they secure the entrance into the Pacific Ocean for Russia's pacific Fleet. If the four islands were regained by Japan and used as a natural barrier by Japan and the United States, Russia's Pacific Fleet would be cut off from the Pacific and may face direct military threats from the two… [it] could also mean the neighboring Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin region, both strategic to Russia's ability to respond t attacks, would also be exposed."
Most significantly, Xinhua added that the Russian moves are part of a concerted "east-oriented strategy against the backdrop of the ongoing global readjustment in a new era." It said that Moscow is developing the Southern Kurils as "a platform to display the muscle of Russia in East Asia. The islands could help Russia to increase its voice in the region and maintain its position as a big power there."

Xinhua didn't explain why Russia feels the urge to display muscle in the Asia-Pacific or to ''increase its voice''. But Alexei Pilko, a Russian commentator who is rather well-placed to reflect official thinking, did. In the best spirit of glasnost, he wrote recently in Russia Profile magazine on the 'great game' in Asia-Pacific. He outlined that Moscow seems to perceive the great danger of a US-China entente cordiale developing in the Asia-Pacific on the basis of a "swap" of "Taiwan for North Korea".

Historical backlog
A lot of history needs to be digested if this thesis is to be fully grasped, and it all goes back to the heyday of the Chinese revolution of 1949 and the indomitable political skills Joseph Stalin as a manipulator par excellence, China's blundering into the Korean war (incited by Stalin) and the premature death of the great prospects of a US-China alliance in 1950 (which both Washington and Beijing keenly sought and Stalin dreaded). Now, Pilko writes:
The current strategic status quo in the Pacific Region is not at all suited to China's national interests, deriving its of free access to the ocean and placing its military activity essentially under US control ... [Taiwan's] unification with mainland China will give Beijing free and uncontrollable access to the Pacific Ocean ... In this respect, a vital ingredient in resolving the Taiwan issue is the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, as it would give China a chance to enter into a major geopolitical deal with the US ... Therefore, North Korea is an ideal bargaining chip in China's talks with the US.
Beijing could even approve the introduction of harsh sanctions against North Korea or maintain neutrality during any punitive military operations against it, provided the US agrees to China's unification with Taiwan which could, for example, follow the Hong Kong scenario ... this kind of "exchange" could well be the only possible option for the US. It cannot allow an all-out war erupt in Korea.

True, if Pyongyang continues with its nuclear program at the current tempo, it is a matter of time before Japan and South Korea follow suit, which, of course, changes the Asia-Pacific security scenario dramatically and heavily damages the US' regional influence and its capacity to play a leadership role.

Nor is Beijing mighty thrilled with North Korea's archaic and unviable regime and its strange ways. In fact, China disfavors North Korea's efforts to build nuclear bombs. Therefore, Russian thinking is that a 'geopolitical exchange' of Taiwan for North Korea would be seen in both Washington and Beijing at some point as a mutually beneficial trade-off that allows the US to resolve the North Korean problem while at the same time creating solid and lasting foundations for the development of constructive US-Chinese relations.

In short, such a scenario harks back to the pre-Korean War geopolitics when both China and US desired a new relationship between the two great powers.

There is much angst in the Russian mind about a possible US-China concord becoming the dominant theme of the East Asian geopolitical stage. Russian commentators are putting a brave face on it and are insisting that Moscow would welcome such a concord as in its own interests.

But one can never quite tell the Russian thought processes in this direction. All that can be said with some degree of certainty is that if the strategic dialogue in the Asia-Pacific takes a new turn and the rules of the game do change, then realpolitik demands that Russia places itself in advance to take advantage of the new realities rather than be caught napping, or at the very least, to cut its losses.

The Russian angst cannot be dismissed lightly. Last week Moscow unveiled a $650 billion rearmament plan through 2020, which includes adding 20 submarines including eight nuclear submarines and more than 600 warplanes, 100 new ships and 1,000 additional helicopters.

"The main task is the modernization of our armed forces ... We are not interested in purchasing any foreign weapons or military equipment," Russian Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin said. The new strategy specifically aims at regaining naval capabilities of the Soviet era and creating next-generation anti-missile defenses to replace the S-300 system.

In the post-Cold War years, the locus of Russian strategic capability continued to stay put in the West. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's expansion and the US's containment policies left Russia with hardly any alternative. Meanwhile, Russian capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region progressively got degraded - and that too, when other countries like China and Japan and South Korea began surging militarily, Russia began lagging behind.

Thanks to Medvedev's "reset" policies with US President Barack Obama and particularly the proximity over the missile defense issue, Moscow has gamed the respite and a possible window of opportunity to turn attention to its vulnerable east. Indeed, China is taking note, too. A recent commentary in the Global Times summed up: "Russia's actions, from Medvedev's visit to the [Kuril] islands to the current plans for rearmament show that the nation's strategic purpose is to rebuild its strategic position in the Asia-Pacific."

It then added somewhat ominously: "If Russia enhances its naval and air abilities in the Southern Kuril islands, and expands its Pacific fleet to strengthen the ability to launch marine attacks, the military forces in the islands will be capable of working in concert with military bass in Vladivostock and the Kamchatka Peninsula. This will certainly affect the security of neighboring countries, and even intensify the potential arms race in Northeast Asia."

Welcome to the new great game in the faraway lands where the sun rises.