By Hiroshi Kimura, honorary professor at Hokkaido University
Flaunting military force in joint exercises with China
Russia carried out military drills in the Russian Far East and Siberia in mid-September. The drills, dubbed “Vostok (East) 2018,” were the largest since the “Zapad (West)” exercises staged by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies in 1981. Some 300,000 soldiers and more than 1,000 military airplanes joined the latest drills. It is noteworthy that roughly 3,200 soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and 30 military aircraft joined the exercises for the first time.
The first objective of the latest drills was to show off Russia’s military strength. Russia is far inferior to the U.S., China, major EU member nations, and Japan in terms of national strength as suggested by the benchmarks for population, gross domestic product, scientific technology, and soft power. The only thing Russia has that is comparable to the U.S. is its military power, including nuclear weapons. Under these circumstances, one might say that it is only natural for Russia to showcase its military muscle. In fact, Russia holds military parades at every possible opportunity, including May Day and the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. In the Soviet era, Admiral Sergey Gorshkov publicly stated the need for “gunboat diplomacy.” The Soviet Union’s four largest fleets could cruise around the world and invoke terror among coastal nations. In other words, the Soviet Union’s military capabilities were tasked not only with the role of physical enforcement but also the role of applying political and diplomatic pressure. Put another way, the Soviet Union thought it was doing a good job if it could prevail in disputes without actually waging war.
Kissinger’s proposal is off the mark
Nowadays, many countries around the world possess nuclear weapons, giving rise to a situation where even conventional weapons cannot be used readily. Winston Churchill’s once proclaimed, “I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war.” Now this statement applies not only to Russia but to all countries.
The second objective of Vostok 2018 was to demonstrate the solidarity of Beijing and Moscow to the world, especially the U.S. Indeed, the Russia-China relationship is delicate and ambivalent (a love-hate relationship). The two countries need each other due to their geographical proximity and economic complementarity. At the same time, there are inherent buds of hostility between the two countries.
If China is a major emerging nation, Russia can be regarded as a sinking former superpower. The bilateral relationship has been reversed so that China, which used to be Russia’s little brother, is trying to put itself in the position of big brother. But China also needs to counter the U.S., which is the only superpower in the world at least for the time being.
This means that China and Russia have to join hands whether they like it or not. On account of this situation and strategy, the two countries often fall in step with each other in dealing with UN Security Council resolutions.
Taking these circumstances into consideration, I would say that the latest proposal made by Kissinger is “off the mark.” In the early 1970s, he came up with a strategy of cooperation between the U.S. and China to counter the Soviet Union, Washington’s imaginary enemy. The strategy turned out to be a huge success under the administration of President Richard Nixon. In encouraging President Donald Trump to stand up to China by teaming up with Russia this time, Kissinger has apparently been blinded by the sweet smell of his past success.
But Kissinger fails to recognize that China and Russia are not decisively pitted against each other at least for now. What Kissinger should recommend to President Trump instead is to mend ties with the EU.
Why hold two-plus-two meetings?
Russia conducted the Vostok 2018 exercises from Sept. 11 through 17. At around the same time, from Sept. 11 to 13, the government of Vladimir Putin presided over the East Economic Forum in Vladivostok and invited Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attend.
Doesn’t this mean that Japan was forced to give its tacit approval for the military cooperation between China and Russia? Although the Kuril Islands, including the Northern Territories, were excluded from the Vostok 2018 drills, it cannot be denied that the drills were also intended to intimidate not only the U.S. but also its security treaty partner, Japan.
Russia is already trying to strengthen its military might on the Northern Territories and the surrounding area. It is building military bases and deploying new surface-to-ship missiles (Bastion and Bal missiles) on the Iturup and Kunashir islands, among other things. But Prime Minister Abe simply told President Putin that he was “closely watching” the situation when they met for a summit.
Japan should never fail to bring up Russia’s military buildup and exercises as official concerns and discuss them when it meets with Russia, particularly at “two-plus-two” meetings of foreign and defense ministers.
If Russia continues to turn a deaf ear to these concerns, what will be the point of holding summits and “two-plus-two” meetings? Such a situation could give rise to a need to reconsider the significance of these meetings.