Interesting Times in the Far East

Chinese curse speaks Russian.

As America readies for a watershed off-year election, Dmitry Medvedev made good Monday on his threat to visit one of the Kuril Islands disputed by Russia and Japan. He chose to visit the major island closest to Japanese territory, Kunashiri. The visit is inherently a significant break with the tacit post-1991 consensus presided over by the US. But it’s what Medvedev was doing before he landed on the island that clarifies how Russia sees this unprecedented move.

Back in late June and July, the Russian military held a large-scale exercise dubbed Vostok (“East”) 2010. Like similar exercises held in Western Russia in 2009, this was the largest such event since the end of the Cold War. During the exercise, which included air and naval drills in the Sea of Japan, Russian mechanized troops operated on Etorufu Island, the disputed island furthest from Japan. On July 25, Medvedev proclaimed a new anniversary to be commemorated by the Russian government: September 2, the day Japan surrendered to the United States in 1945.

These earlier preparations were punctuated last week by a major exercise of the Russian strategic and air-defense forces. Six days before Medvedev headed for the island of Kunashiri, the air-defense force began a three-day strategic-bomber drill over Siberia and the Far East. As that exercise concluded on Thursday, Russia launched two ballistic missiles from submarines in the Arctic, along with one of its most modern ICBMs from Plesetsk in northern Russia. The typical ICBM trajectory from the Plesetsk facility carries it to an impact point north of Japan on Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula. On Friday – to drive the point home – a submarine sitting off the Kamchatka Peninsula launched Russia’s newest ballistic missile, the Bulava, on a reverse westward trajectory.

Japan is aware of this kind of activity as it happens. During the exercise, Medvedev visited the national command post of the Russian air-defense force near Moscow, spending what for him was an unusual two days talking with the troops and observing the command post’s capabilities as the missiles flew and the bombers bombed. Before this event, the most recent of his rare appearances with the troops occurred during the Sea of Japan naval exercise in July.

On concluding his military visit last week, Medvedev hopped a plane to the Asean summit in Vietnam, where he signed a nuclear power deal with Hanoi, preempting the ongoing talks on such a deal with the US and Japan. Japan was able to quickly sign a separate deal with the Vietnamese on Sunday. Shortly after that triumphant announcement from Tokyo, Medvedev headed to Kunashiri Island. His senior foreign-policy adviser, meanwhile, spent the Asean summit speaking elliptically but at length of Russia possibly reestablishing a naval presence in Vietnam.

Context is indispensable in evaluating Russian actions. The Russians, like other Asians, are concerned about power moves by China. But there is a flurry of summitry in the Far East right now – the Asean conference, a series of state visits by President Obama, the G-20 summit in Seoul on the 11th and 12th – and the most striking aspect of Moscow’s saber-rattling is that it has been timed so pointedly. Entirely lacking from the Russian posture is any diffidence about shows of force and regional intimidation when the US or an assembly of global leaders is watching. In fact, Russia’s stance communicates the opposite: determination that its saber-rattling be seen and heard.

The comfortable assumptions of post-Cold War geopolitics are behind us. The pretense that Russia or China will observe collegial norms is fading rapidly. Nations will begin responding as if there is no global superpower constraining their options or holding predators in check. The interesting times have begun.

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

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