TOPICS: Russian diplomacy with China and Japan

Simon Tisdall

Vladimir Putin makes an unlikely swinger. Russia’s president has been assiduously courting China. He sells Beijing oil and weaponry. Bilateral trade will be worth about $27 billion this year. Cold war border disputes have been settled. The two countries recently held unprecedented military exercises. And they often act together at the UN on issues such as Iran and Sudan.

Putin has spent the past three days in Japan, China’s old enemy and regional rival and a country with which Russia is technically still at war. He promised to build a pipeline linking Japan to Siberia’s oil. He encouraged further investment in Russia. And he was conciliatory over the hot-button issue of the Kurile islands, known in Japan as the Northern Territories, seized by the Soviet Union in 1945 and which Tokyo wants returned. “We will do everything possible to solve this problem,’’ Putin said. He even listened with apparent equanimity as Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s prime minister, urged Russia to handle weapons exports to China “in a careful manner.’’

Putin’s two-timing in Tokyo was all the more remarkable given Japan’s relative weakness, said Chr-istopher Hughes, a regional expert at the University of Warwick. “At the end of the cold war, Russia was on the slide and Japan was on the up. But the tables have turned,’’ he said.

“Japan faces a major economic rival in China that to some extent is outplaying Japan in regional diplomacy and energy acquisition. It needs another big power to balance against China alongside its alliance with the US. That’s why it’s put the islands dispute on the back-burner.’’ Similar calculations may lie behind Putin’s placatory stance. He obtained specific rewards, such as Japanese backing for Moscow’s bid for membership of the World Trade Organisation. But long-term concerns about becoming dependent on China’s markets or being victimised by its strategic designs may also have prompted him to hedge his bets. “Russia is very weak in the Far East. It has almost no military presence there,’’ Dr Hughes said.

Similar worries also help explain regionally unloved Japan’s tightening embrace of the US. Undecided whether China’s rise is a threat or an opportunity, uneasy over its threats against Taiwan and deeply wary of North Korea, Washington is reinforcing relationships across Asia, notably with India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Mongolia. But Japan remains the linchpin of its regional strategy and, increasingly, of its forward defence.

Plans to station a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier taskforce, operational commands, and the US Army 1st Corps’ rapid reaction force in Japan were agreed last month. Like its embrace of Russia, US advances carry risks for Japan. It has already been sucked into Washington’s wider agenda in Iraq, Afghanistan and the “war on terror.’’ US bases and missile sales remain controversial. And the assertiveness encouraged by Washington is fuelling nationalist sentiment. But its position on the edge of a world increasingly dominated by Beijing is lonely.