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05.04.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Russian Naval Base at Kuril Islands – a Counter to the ‘Asia Pivot’?

1041412While the United States and Russia continue to contest the future of Syria despite some reasonable progress achieved on the subject, their bi-lateral competition hardly seems to have eased down. Nor will it as global powers continue to contest each other for strategic supremacy to out-manoeuvre each other in the game for global power. The U.S.’ ‘Asia Pivot’ has received certain setbacks, especially in terms of its failure to take its alliance with its erstwhile allies in the region beyond conventional terms of strategic ‘alliance.’ With the United States unable to clearly defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and with the U.S. unable to topple Assad in Syria, its regional allies seem to have ‘lost’ faith in the U.S.’ ability to protect them against any potential ‘threat’ arising from China or Russia.

Notwithstanding the setbacks it has received due to the conflict in the Middle East, regional states’ own counter-measures have went a long way in putting the ‘Asia Pivot’ on halt. Until recently, Russia had maintained a low-profile response to it; however, with Russian military achieving striking success in Syria and the global boost it has received as a result, Russia seems to be all set to translate that success into strengthening its position in the region with the sole aim at countering the NATO’s expansionism. Its latest manifestation came with the news of Russia’s possible decision to build a naval base in Kuril Islands.

The announcement came from Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on last Friday. Shoigu also supplied some vital information with regard to defence installations that Russia is going to build there. According to it, Bal and Bastion shore-to-ship missiles and Eleron-3 drones will be deployed on the islands before the end of this year. These are of course formidable state-of-the-art Russian missile systems with the capability to protect naval bases and other strategic installations on the coast, defend coastline in probable landing approach areas and to establish control over strait zone and territorial waters in areas of high-risk assaults as well as for gaining overall dominance over the sea. Both have a range of up to 300 kilometers.

The Russian decision to strengthen its position in the region also has an immediate context. Specifically, this decision has come against the way Japan has been militarizing the whole belt of Islands stretching 1400 km from the Japanese mainland towards Taiwan. Japan’s increasing drive towards militarization has come as a part of the U.S.’ ‘Asia Pivot.’ With Japan being one of the states in the region that continue to repose its trust in the U.S. for military build-up, the U.S. has been moving heavens and earth to change Japan’s post world war 2 policy regarding military build-up.

It was in September 2015 that Japan’s upper chamber of Parliament approved controversial bills allowing the country’s military to engage in overseas combat in limited circumstances — a major shift after seven decades of pacifism. The 148-90 vote was the final hurdle for the measures, which was to go into effect within roughly the next six months. The legislation reinterprets Article 9 of the Japan’s pacifist post-World War Two constitution, which outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes. The reinterpretation will now allow the Japanese military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, to defend its allies in a limited role in conflicts abroad. Supporters of the legislation, including top U.S. officials, say Japan needs to expand the role of the SDF to counter potential threats from nations such as China and North Korea and Russia. In this context, Russia’s decision to build a naval base on the Island that has been disputed by Japan since the Second World War is a clear signal from Russia regarding its own position not only vis-à-vis the Island but also the region on the whole.

The legislation and the U.S. support for it come against the larger background of the U.S. pressure on Japan to translate some of its economic resources into military build-up and preparedness for limited conflict. The U.S. and Japan have accordingly updated their mutual treaty, which now obliges both sides to take to arms to support the other side in any conflict situation, and the US has accordingly begun deployments of the missile defense system in Japan and may do so in South Korea.

This deployment is not only Russia-centric; it is equally centred on China and it is perhaps for this reason that Russia’s decision to build a naval base in its far east comes as a direct force multiplier for China, which has, on its part, been looking to boost up its alliance with regional states as a mean to counter the U.S.’ geo-strategic moves.

While China’s anti ‘Asia Pivot’ strategy is largely focused on South and East China seas, Russia’s big entry in the regional game marks a big boost for China and its allies; and while it is going to pose a big challenge for the U.S. and Japan, it is also explicitly indicating to the U.S. and its allies that its ‘Asia Pivot’ would have very limited manoeuvering space in the region—hence, Japan’s ‘deep concerns’ over Russia’s heavy military presence in its far east.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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