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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tokyo and Moscow Bury the Sword

KHABAROVSK -- The Russian general gamely tried on a samurai helmet. The visiting Japanese general donned a Russian fur hat. Together, they watched Russian tanks maneuver across the snow-covered terrain.

Japan and Russia are weaving closer military and economic relations, and the reason lies just across the Amur River from here: China.

That is a big change for Russia and Japan, which for two centuries have eyed each other warily in Northeast Asia. To this day, Japanese are slow to forgive Russia for the deaths of thousands of World War II prisoners in Siberian work camps. Russian dead at the hands of what they call the samurai are memorialized at Soviet-era monuments. The two nations never even signed a peace treaty ending World War II.

Yet visits by navy and coast guard units of each country have become annual affairs. In 2004, bilateral trade jumped 38 percent over 2003 levels. Japan has become the largest foreign investor in the oil and gas projects of Sakhalin -- the largest foreign investment in Russia today. Toyota, Japan's largest corporation, has announced plans to build an auto plant in Russia.

"As long as Japan and Russia are in cooperation, China will not be able to move against us," Toshiyuki Shikata, a military analyst at Teikyo University, said by telephone, echoing a rapidly emerging view in Tokyo.

China's effort to achieve regional supremacy is bringing Japan and Russia together, said Michael Auslin, an assistant professor in Northeast Asian history at Yale University. "Since the 1790s, the Japanese have always been worried about Russia, and the Russian-Japanese relationship has always been tense," he added. "Without the growing China threat, I don't see the two sides coming together."

In a policy statement in December, Japan for the first time cited China and North Korea as potential military threats.

Japan is increasingly alarmed about Chinese military purchases and investments in modern submarines. Still, with an aging population, Japan is cutting its overall military spending by about 4 percent over the next decade, diverting some money to the elderly.

Driving Moscow's insecurities, the Russian Far East has lost 700,000 people, or 10 percent of its population, since 1990. Along Siberian stretches of Russia's long border with China, abandoned shells of Soviet and Russian military barracks are common sights.

With Russia's conventional forces a shadow of their Soviet strength, the nation increasingly relies on diplomacy and its nuclear threat to ensure respect for its borders.

The visit here in November by Lieutenant General Kenji Tokuda, commander of Japan's northern forces, helped pave the way for Japan's announcement on Dec. 10 that it would cut the number of its tanks and artillery pieces by a third.

One week before the announcement, Alexander Losyukov, Russia's ambassador to Japan, flew to Hokkaido and met with Tokuda. Later, in an interview in Tokyo, the ambassador said, half joking, "I apologized for no longer representing a threat, for the fact that he is losing resources."

From the Japanese side, a military analyst at Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's leading conservative newspaper, wrote of the new military orientation: "A threat that no longer exists is the scenario of a full-scale invasion of Hokkaido by Russian ground forces."

Still, Japan maintains grievances with Russia. For almost 60 years, Japan has demanded the return of four islands in the Kuril chain that were seized by Soviet troops in the last days of World War II. In addition, Japanese officials are angry over Russia's booming sales of warplanes, ships and missiles to China. Last year, China was the biggest customer for Rosoboronexport, Russia's military exports company.

But Japan's fear of China overrides such irritants.

Here in the Far East, attitudes toward Japan are the most favorable in all of Russia, according to a nationwide poll conducted in late 2004 for the Japanese Embassy in Moscow. On the other hand, local nervousness has been growing over the large number of Chinese tourists -- 200,000 last summer alone. Assaults on Chinese visitors are increasing.

In contrast, there have been no public objections to the increasingly close cooperation between the navies and coast guards of Russia and Japan. Since 2001, there have been annual Japanese port calls to Vladivostok, home to Russia's Pacific Fleet; there have been no port calls by the Chinese navy.

Relations between admirals have "developed well on a personal level," a Japanese diplomat in Vladivostok said. Russian Navy cooperation is so close that the Pacific Fleet is discussing a joint commemoration with Japan of the May 27-28, 1905, Battle of Tsushima, in which Russia's fleet was all but destroyed in the Korea Strait, and which secured Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese war.

Today, cooperation between the coast guards is equally close as both countries work to improve safety and reduce pollution and poaching in the Sea of Japan. Through October, a joint Russian-Japanese effort to combat poaching netted the detention of 36 ships, compared with three during all of 2003, said Alexander Ivankov, deputy head of Russia's border guards in the Primorye region.

Japan also is spending $180 million to help Russia dispose of 42 nuclear-powered submarines that are rusting away in the Far East.

On land, Japanese and Russian forensic specialists worked together last summer to disinter the remains of some of the 5,000 Japanese prisoners of war who died in the Far East in World War II.

"Japan's economic weight is much more important than its military weight," said Sergei Popov, a retired Soviet naval officer.

Today, attracted by the large oil and gas deposits in eastern Russia, Japan has lobbied Moscow successfully to build an oil pipeline to the Sea of Japan, skirting China.

Driven largely by these projects, Russian-Japanese trade grew to $9.5 billion in 2004.

"Trade and economic relations of Russia and Japan look promising," Ambassador Losyukov said at a December news conference in Tokyo. "We are on the threshold of possibility of the mass advent of Japanese business to the Russian Federation."

In a measure of changing Japanese attitudes to Russia, Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo and Japan's most prominent nationalist, said in an interview on Thursday: "Japan, the United States and Russia should jointly work on the pipeline project. It would keep China in check greatly, since China has no resources."