The dispute between Russia and Japan over the southern Kuril Islands, which lie north of Hokkaido, has heated up since Dmitry Medvedev’s provocative visit to the islands in November 2010. It has been largely a war of words, but after a second high-level visit 10 days ago, this time by the Russian defense minister, Russian media are reporting today that air-defense missile systems will be deployed to beef up the aging, Cold War–era artillery positions in the Kurils. According to RIA Novosti, the newest air-defense system, the S-400 “Triumf,” will be installed in the disputed islands. The Russian general staff declined to confirm or deny the report.

The S-400 has many capabilities in common with the newest version of the American Patriot missile, and some that are superior. With a range of 250 miles (400 km), it would be able to target aircraft flying deep within Japanese air space, as well as intercept cruise and ballistic missiles. It’s worth noting that a prospective S-400 deployment in the Kurils is not analogous to the situation involving the U.S. Patriot battery in Poland. That battery, besides being non-operational, has older weapons that lack the range to reach any significant portion of Russian air space. (They might reach part of Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.) Of equal significance, Russian action in the Kurils would entail fortifying disputed territory; the Patriot battery in Poland is on territory recognized internationally as belonging to Warsaw.

Japanese surveillance will detect the S-400 quickly if it is deployed. Meanwhile, there was an interesting set of clarifications from the U.S. government after the flare-ups last fall in Japan’s island disputes with Russia and China. Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates made it clear that the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands, which China disputes with Japan. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made it equally clear that the treaty does not apply to defense of the Kuril Islands, because the islands are “not under Japanese administration.”

Keeping our foreign-policy thinking on autopilot leaves our spokesmen giving narrowly conceived, legalistic responses that are inadequate to a changing situation. America’s core ally in the Far East is under real territorial pressure from both Russia and China — and the reflexive assumption that any given situation will stabilize itself, with little or no inconvenience to the U.S., is increasingly outdated. Russia is beefing up its armaments on the disputed islands a few miles off Hokkaido; the possible implications of this are no different from what they would have been at any other time in history. One of our chief allies is being challenged aggressively by the two major military powers of Asia in the matter of its territorial claims. The fates of these disputes will have as big an impact on the conditions underpinning our national security as our own defense budget does.

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