THE East Asian security environment is changing. Japanese reporters are now allowed into Vladivostock, Russia's chief naval base in Asia since czarist times.
Their televised reports show Russian eagerness to turn Vladivostock into a flourishing economic and industrial center, open to trade and investment from all over the world. They also focus on deteriorating morale in the former Soviet Navy and show sites within the city where dangerous arms are stored with apparently minimal precautions.
Other reporters go to the southern Kuriles, Japan's Northern Territories, the main bone of contention between Tokyo and Moscow, with strong nationalist emotions engaged on both sides. Journalists are not allowed into Russian military bases, but can talk to the islands' civilian residents freely and report on the dilapidated condition of the local economy.
From these reports, it is hard to think of a Russia that has to be "deterred" from invading Japan, as United States and Japanese doctrine held during the cold war. But in Tokyo, officials contend that Japan cannot let down its guard. Russian ships and planes do not engage in the number of sorties and maneuvers they did in the heyday of the cold war. But officially their numbers have not shrunk, and it would not be prudent, Tokyo says, for Japan or for its American ally unilaterally and precipitously to c hange their own security dispositions. This is generally the viewpoint of the Pentagon as well.
There seems to be an inconsistency in the Japanese stance on the territorial question. On one hand, Tokyo argues that this is purely a bilateral issue with Moscow, that it's the one thing hampering a peace treaty and normalized relations between the two countries. On the other hand, Tokyo has made considerable efforts to obtain American and Western support for its position, to the extent of getting the Munich summit last July to ask for a solution based on "law and justice." Tokyo still seems reluctant t o consider the territorial dispute in a wider context, that of the security environment of Northeast Asia. When Moscow raises this issue, Tokyo accuses it of trying to internationalize the dispute, of trying to involve the US by suggesting that Moscow has legitimate concerns about the US-Japan security relationship.
From the Japanese viewpoint, the US-Japan security treaty and the defense structure established by the US in Northeast Asia and the Pacific, with active Japanese support, are responses to a Soviet military threat that grew steadily during the cold war. That war is over, but with nationalism on the rise in Russia and with the former Soviet military establishment a potent factor in Moscow's power equation, there is no clear indication that the actual disposition of Russian forces in East Asia has changed.
Therefore, Tokyo argues, the Japanese Self Defense Force must continue to keep its best troops, tanks, and military equipment in Hokkaido, Japan's northern island, facing Russia.
When the future is uncertain, it is human nature to want to hang on to past certainties. Yet "where there is no vision, the people perish." Surely the vision that Japanese and Americans should be cherishing is one of a democratic Russia peacefully building its economy, and of the steps most likely to bring this about. In this vision, the Sea of Okhotsk would cease to be a lair for submarines aiming their missiles at the US, and the Japan Sea, the goal of Russia's historic drive to obtain a warm water por t, would be transformed into a sea of lively international commerce.
The complete vision would have to include a reunited Korean peninsula. But a new security relationship between Japan and Russia does not have to wait for that more problematic change. It could feature not only the demilitarization of the islands to be returned to Japan, but also limits on Japanese force structures in Hokkaido, to be imposed in tandem with similar limits on Russian forces in the surrounding regions.
Inevitably, the US will be involved in this new security relationship. There are legitimate reasons other than fear of Moscow for the US-Japan security treaty, under which Washington maintains military bases in Japan. But Russian forces in the Far East are an essential element in the Northeast Asian and Pacific security environment. As this environment changes, new thinking is required as much in Tokyo and Washington as in Moscow.