In late September, the leaders of Russia and China were meeting in Beijing.
Meanwhile, China's confrontation with Japan over the seizure of a fishing boat
was playing out.
There is no smoking gun that ties the two events together, and yet there is a
strong common thread that runs through each event, and leaves a distinct
impression that the two events are not unrelated.
Thanks to a mutual declaration designed to set the historical record straight -
at least in their eyes - Russia's ownership of islands immediately north of the
main Japanese island of Honshu was firmly reinforced just as the Chinese people
were fixated on the Diaoyu Islands - the Senkaku Islands as they Japanese call
them - which are located on the opposite end of Japan.
Despite years of discussion, Russia and Japan are no closer to
resolving their own territorial dispute involving southern Sakhalin, and the
Kuril Islands. The joint statement signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing strongly suggested that no such
resolution was in sight.
"During the war [World War II], people in China and Russia sustained major
aggressions from the fascists and militarists, and they endured the cruelest
ordeals and suffered the heaviest casualties," the statement says. "The
fascists and militarists schemed to conquer and enslave us two nations, other
countries and the whole continent [Eurasia]. [People in] China and Russia will
never forget the feat of those who checked the two forces [fascists and
militarists]," said the statement, according to the People's Daily.
More than anything else, it is the tone and timing of this joint statement that
calls into question the notion that the fishing boat incident roughly two weeks
earlier had no bearing whatsoever on the meeting in Beijing.
"The people of the two countries will remember and pay homage to all those,
from the Allies or not, who fought shoulder to shoulder with us to safeguard
lives and freedom," the statement added.
"The glorious history, imprinted with the friendship the people of the two
countries forged in the war and their mutual help, has laid a sound foundation
for today's strategic partnership of coordination between China and Russia,"
said the statement. 
Read the last sentence again very carefully.
This proclamation comes after recent oil, natural gas and nuclear deals signed
by China and Russia, along with a shared sense of apprehension about the US
ballistic missile defense and conventional "Prompt Global Strike" capabilities
- issues that arose during the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)
negotiations between Russia and the US. There is also the proposed Sino-Russian
treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat
or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects.
But this new proclamation was designed to do far more than simply strengthen
the spirit and resolve of the Chinese people in their showdown with Japan. Some
might argue that no such strengthening is required given the lingering
animosity between the countries. Sergei Luzyanin, deputy director of the
Institute for the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, challenged the
notion that China should expect to reap benefits from Russia's position, let
alone Russia's involvement here.
"The Senkaku problem shouldn't be linked to the results of World War II," he
In the end, the postponement due to bad weather of Medvedev's planned visit in
late September to the Kunashiri and Etorofu Islands - known as part of the
Northern Territories by the Japanese and as part of the Southern Kurils by the
Russians - immediately following his visit to Beijing was welcome news in
Tokyo. Russia seized the islands in the closing days of World War II. 
Russia was still very displeased after several Japanese politicians tried to
convince Medvedev to cancel his trip there altogether.
"The Russian president independently selects routes of his domestic trips. Any
recommendations from abroad are inappropriate and unacceptable," said Russian
Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko in Moscow. "We consider it
necessary to recall that these islands are a territory of the Russian
Federation in accordance with international legal reality that emerged
following the Second World War and enshrined in the UN charter."
Still, despite China's certainty about where things stand as far as Russia is
concerned, Russia's eagerness to play in China's shadow, and to endorse China's
foreign policy without reservation is not assured. After all, Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov deserved credit for attempting, albeit in vain, to prod
China and Japan into initiating direct talks while he was in Beijing. 
Prior to Captain Zhan Qixiong's decision to ignore Japanese requests to stop
and to instead bounce his fishing boat, the Minjinyu 5179, off a pair of
Japanese maritime patrol vessels, China was outmaneuvering the US and Japan,
and watching two old allies drift away from each other. One moment, no Japanese
cabinet members or other senior members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan
dared set foot in Yasukuni Shrine. And the next moment, no US aircraft carrier
appeared in the Yellow Sea during routine joint exercises involving US and
South Korean military forces. 
All through the summer of 2010, China was given reason to celebrate a string of
successes. Among other things, its campaign to present itself as a "peaceful
rising power" was shifting into high gear. All of this was happening as China
conducted a series of naval incursions in and around the first island chain, a
geographic barrier which greatly inhibits China's offensive and defense
Then came the fishing boat seizure in September. Among other things, China may
have sacrificed or at least diminished the fruits of its peaceful outreach of
late in order to allow China to gauge domestic support for a much more
assertive stance over the Diaoyu Islands. Certainly, from an image projection
standpoint, this was a risky move by Beijing at a time when incidents at sea in
both the East China Sea and the South China Sea have escalated.
The arrest of Captain Zhan in early September by Japan should have been quickly
assigned to the errant fishing boat file by China, and dealt with accordingly
by the two countries in a relatively subdued fashion. Instead, China reacted as
if Japan had suddenly sunk a Chinese submarine in international waters not far
from Taiwan. 
China's emotional reaction was probably intentional. By assigning great
importance to this incident, China demonstrated that it is willing to take
unexpectedly bold risks that it might not do under ordinary circumstances.
Again, this was done primarily for domestic consumption.
That Russia would allow itself to become a supporter of China - even
establishing a new holiday in September directly tied to the end of World War
II - at the expense of the Japanese no doubt surprised and delighted Beijing.
China and the rest of Asia could see immediately that the Chinese public
perceives the Japanese control of the Diaoyu Islands as an illegitimate claim -
this is not news - and the fishing boat seizure was an unlawful extension of
that claim. The dispatch of Chinese maritime patrol vessels that are edging
closer and closer to these islands each day magnified the not so subtle
collective nod of approval given by the Chinese people to their government.
Given the leadership transition in Beijing already underway, and the desire of
the Chinese military and hardliners in general to be more influential and
certainly more assertive in dealing with China's neighbors, Russia's stamp of
approval is indeed troubling. For China, this was a time to bask in the
sunshine, especially as the political fallout bubbled up in Japan, entrapping
Prime Minister Naoto Kan in the messy situation surrounding Zhan's release, and
injecting plenty of turmoil into the ranks of the Democratic Party of Japan.
In addition, Japan has been slow to release video of the incident to the public
for reasons unknown.
India, for one, has to be discomforted by Russia's closeness to China during
this entire episode. However, for India, this is an opportunity at the same
time to underscore its own fragile position with respect to its boundary
disputes with China.
India has wanted the world to pay far more attention to China's "string of
pearls" port development strategy in the Indian Ocean region anyway, and in
September, China provided India with a new and important way to buttress its
defensive capabilities on a much vaster scale. This is not to say that a new
regional defensive plan is in place, but rather that the conditions for such a
plan have improved immensely as far as Japan and India are concerned.
Consider the matter of the Japanese spy satellite that failed earlier this
summer, for example. This was noteworthy only to a select audience in the space
community, or so it seemed. Indeed, the Chinese must have taken a good deal of
comfort in the rapid reduction in the size of Japan's fleet of surveillance
Although US satellite surveillance of China is intense and growing, India can
now use Japan's space surveillance gap to India's advantage. And why not garner
support for the creation of a much more tightly coordinated and shared
surveillance network aimed at China, if one does not already exist involving
India and Japan?
India's decision last month to relocate nuclear-armed Su-30MKI fighters to a
base just a short hop from the Sino-Indian border demonstrates that India and
Japan are both under increasing pressure as China's military buildup and
movements along its borders increase in tempo and visibility. 
In other words, from the northwestern frontier of India to the southeastern
maritime boundary of Japan, China's behavior and posture is the same. When
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Japan later this month - just prior
to US President Barack Obama's trip to India - this will likely be a topic of
discussion, but out of necessity, one that is addressed quietly.
Has the agenda for these high-level talks in Tokyo been altered, and are what
were little more than a previously scheduled round of talks now taking on added
urgency and scope?
India and Russia, which enjoy a cozy and long-standing military assistance
relationship, must now revisit the relationship. This well-orchestrated meeting
in Beijing will remind India that Russia has its own set of priorities, its own
cultural imperatives and wants to keep all of its options open.
The US does not emerge as a big winner here despite the shared opinions of many
commentators to this effect. The US is not prepared to provide the essential
glue for a consolidated military alliance between Japan and India. Any US
attempts to rush this process will yield an incoherent US foreign policy in
South Asia in particular which could trigger an embarrassing and enormous
Besides driving Pakistan further into the arms of the Chinese - a process that
is already vexing to US policymakers in general - it would jeopardize the
entire US military campaign in Afghanistan. A looming backlash in Islamabad is
what prevents the US from being too overt or too vocal in support of firmer
military ties between Japan and India. Watch for this to become manifest when
Obama performs a delicate balancing act as he sits down with Singh later this
Although the US may be inching closer to its old partner Japan thanks to the
fishing boat incident, the US base relocation in Okinawa is still unresolved
and represents a political minefield for both countries.
In addition, China is keen to foment resurgent Japanese nationalism that will
hinder the US in its dealings with South Korea and Taiwan as well. Both have a
stake in the outcome of the Senkakau Islands dispute, too. And it is not one
which favors Japan - something the US must keep in mind.
Given all these variables, the US must be selective in its maneuvers. These
words written by Professor Zhao Hongwei at Hosei University in Japan recently
on the editorial page of China's Global Times deserve attention.
"China's temper has been frayed by the recent clash over fishing near the
Diaoyu Islands. But the Japanese government and public still believe that Japan
surrendered only due to a lack of national strength when facing the overbearing
attitude of China. In the public's view, Japan only acted in accordance with
the law, making it like a scholar overwhelmed by a soldier," said Zhao.
He urged China to be "cautious of the possibility of winning the diplomatic war
while losing the PR [public relations] battle". Zhao also pointed his finger at
those he considered to be the real culprits in this instance.
"Frankly speaking, this crisis was sensationalized by Japanese politicians for
domestic politics ends. In order to get rid of the vicious circle of such
Sino-Japanese relations, China must criticize such speculation as soon as
possible in the future. If the politicians do not admit the fault, China should
freeze diplomatic contacts with them, which would affect their official
positions," said Zhao.
His message to the Chinese people was abundantly clear.
"We need to target Japanese politicians' hottest speculations and anti-Chinese
claims focused on the Diaoyu Islands. Bilateral monitoring of the area is
needed to block the possibility of future incidents that might be manipulated
by politicians," said Zhao. "Only by taking the offensive can we see new
prospects of the long-term normal development of Sino-Japanese relations." 
The bottom line is that Tokyo cannot be trusted. This distrust helps China to
sustain its campaign to frame the seizure of the Diaoyu Islands as a
justifiable and legitimate undertaking. In turn, this builds popular support
for a more effective strategy and more military might which will be applied
quickly and effectively to the "first island chain" when and if the situation
warrants such action.