Russian national security concerns are casting an increasingly larger shadow over efforts by Japan to push talks to resolve the contentious issues surrounding the disputed Northern Territories.
Russia has shown great concern for Tokyo's plan to deploy the land-based Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system, ostensibly to deal with the growing provocations from North Korea and its series of ballistic missile launches.
However, Russia apparently views the situation differently because it plans to deploy land-based anti-ship missiles in the Chishima Islands farther north of the four islands of the Northern Territories as early as next year.
The Russian concerns were expressed by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff of the armed forces, in a meeting in Tokyo on Dec. 11 with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.
Referring to the Aegis Ashore system, Gerasimov said, "The equipment will be under the control of the U.S. military. That is why we are concerned."
Onodera explained that the system was being planned for deployment in the wake of North Korea's development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
"The system will be operated not by the U.S. military but by Japan's Self-Defense Forces," Onodera said in seeking Russian understanding. "It is not something designed to serve as a threat to our neighbors, including Russia."
Similar concerns were raised in November when Foreign Minister Taro Kono met with his Russia counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, who said the Aegis Ashore system would "change the security situation in East Asia."
In the background to such concerns lies a growing wariness toward the United States, which was triggered in large part by increased economic sanctions in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea.
Russia has been strengthening its military capabilities in its Far East, considering the region connecting the Kuril Islands with the Kamchatka Peninsula as a defense line against the United States. The Kuril Islands is the Russian name for the Northern Territories and Chishima Islands.
As tensions have risen due to military provocations by North Korea, Russia has also become more critical of plans by Japan and the United States to construct a ballistic missile defense system to counter Pyongyang.
According to Russian media, the Russian military plans to deploy land-based anti-ship missile systems, such as the Bastion and Bal, to two islands among the Chishima Islands. One is Matua, which has the Japanese name of Matsuwa, and the other is Paramushir, which is called Horomushiro in Japanese.
Both islands were used by the Imperial Japanese military as bases during World War II. According to one military expert, Russian bases on those islands could be utilized to defend against invading troops as well as prevent U.S. Navy aircraft carriers from entering the Sea of Okhotsk.
Russia has already upgraded its military capabilities on two of the Northern Territories. Bases on Etorofu and Kunashiri have been modernized from about 2011 and land-based anti-ship missiles were deployed on those islands in 2016.
"It appears Russia is trying to restore through the military field some of the diplomatic influence that has decreased in the international community in the post-Cold War period," a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said.
Those efforts to bolster military strength on the Northern Territories are raising apprehension among Japanese officials about the effect on discussions to have those islands returned to Japan.
Japan had planned to use joint economic activities on the Northern Territories as a steppingstone to improved negotiations on the status of the islands.
But the ballistic missile defense system has been a major hurdle to those talks.
Defense Ministry officials believe that Russia would never return any of the Northern Territories as long as it feared that U.S. bases might be constructed on those islands if they were ever returned to Japan.
According to a source knowledgeable about Japan-Russia ties, Shotaro Yachi, director-general of the secretariat for the National Security Council, is planning to visit Moscow as early as Dec. 13 for talks with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, to gain understanding about Japan's stance on national security issues.
(This article was written by Hitoki Nakagawa in Moscow and Ryo Aibara and Hiroyoshi Itabashi in Tokyo.)