Analysis Opinion

Putin at Ease in Asia’s Power Politics

The West’s desire to isolate Russia does not seem to resonate in Asia, where interests trump liberal ideals.

There is an expression in Japan: kumo o tsukamuyou. It translates roughly into “like grasping a cloud.” We might call it “wishful thinking.” The proverb springs to mind when reading Japan’s former defense minister Yuriko Koike’s recent commentary.

In it, Koike presents her perspective of the challenges Japan has to face in East Asia. She believes these challenges are easy to enumerate for they all depend on one factor alone: liberal democracy. Those closest to it are under pressure by those farthest from it. China, Russia and North Korea are problems, Japan, the United States and their allies are the solution.

Koike’s is an ideal world in which the leader of the world’s biggest democracy could only possibly choose to ally with likeminded democratic powers and thus India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is dutifully expected by Koike to team up with the alliance being formed to contain China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.

Yuriko Koike, though, might have another thing coming. Not only is Modi not the obvious ally she believes him to be; the government in Tokyo itself may very well have other plans.

Nationalist trend

Let us start with Modi. The new prime minister was until recently barred from entering the United States due to his handling of the Islamophobic riots in Gujarat in 2002. Those humanitarians in the American State Department who advised on the sanction may not be feeling so popular right about now, as this is hardly the best way to cause a good first impression.

But let us step back for a moment. Why is counting India as an ally suddenly so important, that a former Japanese defense minister would choose to dedicate an entire column to it?

While Japan’s cooperation with India has been increasing, the South Asian country is still hardly an ally with very different positions on such topics as the acceptance of International Criminal Court jurisdiction, “responsibility to protect” or the recognition of Kosovo — not to mention climate change and World Trade Organization negotiations.

The answer comes in one word: Ukraine. The crisis in that country is changing many equations, but what Western liberals learned was that by sanctioning Russia, the world’s liberal democracies did not set an international trend. Instead, they ended up with the short end of the stick and watched as the rest of the world shrugged at their indignation over the annexation of the Crimea and continued merry trade deals with Russia.

What Koike calls “China’s contempt for Putin,” reflected according to her in a lower price for gas than was expected, was hailed by other observers as a victory for the Russian president, who secured a price that is close to current market trends but will be kept steady for longer than a generation, in a region — East Asia — where fracking, offshore supply and imports are likely to lower prices in the foreseeable decades.

Quite to the contrary, the same Western intelligentsia that marvels at the potential of social media for political change might like to have a look at the Twitter profile of India’s new leader and read his quick and enthusiastic reply to Vladimir Putin’s message of congratulations.

Modi seems to be part of an international trend of nationalism which has propelled to power such leaders as Vladimir Putin and Shinzō Abe himself as well as made significant inroads in the recent European Parliament elections and set the federalist project there back for a few decades.


What liberals in the West and Japan fear is that India’s new leadership will choose to continue to cooperate closely with Russia in what is now an old entente against Chinese influence in Asia.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union aligned with India and kept its arsenal up to date while China counterbalanced with a pact with Pakistan.

This had not fundamentally changed until the Ukraine crisis, but it now looks that ties between Russia and the West are being severed quickly — which means that Russia will tend to side with non-Western voices more easily.

Yuriko Koike is right that China and Russia are not natural allies — and less so with India in the mix — but they will ally against the West if they perceive a common threat.

India has of late made some steps toward collaborating more closely with Japan in Southeast Asia: a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was initiated with Australia, Japan and the United States; Indian navy officials held discussions with Vietnamese counterparts and Indian ships provided relief to the Philippines after last year’s hurricane. Will this continue?

Narendra Modi was not solely elected for his business acumen but also because he is a nationalist. The thing about nationalists is that they tend to side with geopolitics against political correctness. It is thus highly improbable that Modi will put regime empathy ahead of national interests the way Western leaders often do. It has always been of little concern to New Delhi what regime rules Russia as long as close strategic relations continue.

Rude awakening

But it might actually be worse. Koike might be in for a rude awakening about the nature of her own party.

India and Japan share a common concern with China, but just as the road to Damascus passes through Tehran, the road to Beijing goes through Moscow. Russia still possesses a number of technologies India and Japan would not like to see fall in Chinese hands. After the West’s sanctions, Russia moved quickly to announce the sale of S-400 air defense systems to China. Indians and Japanese would be very interested in making sure such goodwill does not extend to stealth fighters, ballistic missile submarines and other items.

Putin has even gone so far as to hint that the status of the Kuril Islands might be up for discussion.

Japan’s Abe is a nationalist who has moved to normalize Japan by pressing for changes in its pacifist constitution. Moreover, he knows that there are even more hardcore nationalists at home who would not forgive him if he squandered the chance to reclaim the symbolic island chain.

The future of Indo-Japanese relations appears therefore to be quite bright but sadly for Yuriko Koike, along with other Japanese liberals and neoconservatives, not at the expense of Russia.

After all, why would a Japan concerned with China and North Korea buy itself another source of insecurity?