Strategic Considerations in Japan-Russia Relations: The Rise of China and the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Strategic Considerations in Japan-Russia Relations
The Rise of China and the U.S.-Japan Alliance

by Michito Tsuruoka
April 5, 2017

This essay examines recent developments in Japan-Russia relations and assesses the implications of both China’s rise and the U.S.-Japan alliance for this relationship.



The Japan-Russia relationship operates in a complex strategic environment. In conducting diplomacy with Moscow, Tokyo must take into account both the rise of China as a strategic challenge to Japan and the alliance with the U.S., which is always viewed skeptically by Moscow. On the one hand, China’s assertive actions in the East and South China Seas provide the basic strategic rationale for Japan’s recent efforts to improve relations with Russia. On the other hand, any possible deal between the two countries on the return of the disputed Northern Territories/Southern Kuril Islands will have to address the role of U.S. forces in protecting Japan under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. For resolving the latter issue, the unification of Germany in 1990 and NATO enlargement in the late 1990s may provide useful lessons on what Russia might demand and what could be negotiated.

  • As long as it perceives the current strategic environment in Northeast Asia as “increasingly severe,” Japan is likely to maintain efforts to improve relations with Russia in order to bolster its own security.
  • By far the most important issue for Tokyo in Japan-Russia relations is the return to Japan of the disputed Northern Territories. Concluding a deal will require full support from the U.S. because Japan cannot—and should not—make a decision about the military status of the returned islands without taking into consideration the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.
  • While seeking to improve relations with Russia in view of the rise of China and its increasingly assertive actions in the East and South China Seas, what Tokyo could realistically achieve remains modest: preventing Russia and China from presenting a united front against Japan regarding wartime history and territorial issues.