Author: Tomohiko Satake, NIDS
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Japan has actively supported the resistance through the provision of non-lethal defence equipment, emergency humanitarian and financial assistance and the acceptance of evacuees.
Japan has also joined international sanctions through several financial measures, such as the restriction of transactions with Russia’s central bank and the exclusion of selected Russian banks from SWIFT. After the report on Russian war crimes, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that Japan would also phase out Russian oil and coal imports.
Japan’s support is not surprising. Russia’s invasion clearly violates the rule of law, which Japan has adhered to for many years. Japan has also supported democratisation, good governance and economic development in former Soviet countries, including Ukraine, through foreign aid and diplomatic measures since the 1990s. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Japan condemned Russia and participated in G7 sanctions. Japan also supported UN resolutions relating to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and human rights situations. In 2015, Shinzo Abe visited Ukraine, the first time for a Japanese prime minister, which then-Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko reciprocated in 2016.
But Japan’s sanctions at that time were not associated with high economic costs and moderate compared to those of Western countries. Japan also deliberately delayed the timing of sanctions to differentiate its stance from the United States and European Union. Such policies were driven by the Abe administration’s negotiations with Russia over the disputed Northern Territories based on the 1956 Japan–Soviet Joint Declaration. This was also a strategic calculation to prevent the Chinese–Russian axis from challenging Japanese interests, as it was hoped that ‘two front wars’ would be avoidable under improved relations with Russia.
But this amounted to nothing more than wishful thinking. Despite 27 meetings between Abe and Putin, negotiations over the Northern Territories made little progress and plans for joint economic projects on the islands never got off the ground. Even during this period, Russia continued to bolster its military presence in the region.
Negotiations became almost deadlocked when Russia changed its constitution to explicitly outlaw territorial concessions in July 2020. In addition to the deployment of long-range surface-to-air missiles to the Etorofu and Kunashiri islands in December 2020, Russia increased the number of military exercises. Japan also protested Putin’s establishment of a special economic zone in the Northern Territories in 2021, which could, from a Japanese perspective, strengthen Russia’s effective control.
Meanwhile, Russia has increasingly aligned with China, as demonstrated by their June 2019 joint statement on the ‘development of a comprehensive strategic partnership for collaboration in the new era’. Since, Russian and Chinese bombers have annually conducted joint flights from the Sea of Japan to the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
In August 2021, the Russian military joined a Chinese military exercise for the first time. In October, Russian and Chinese navy vessels conducted their first joint navigation along the Pacific coast of Japan via the Tsugaru and Osumi Straits. And right before Russia’s invasion, Putin confirmed that the friendship between Russia and China has ‘no limits’.
These developments indicated to Japanese policymakers that no matter how much effort was devoted to improving relations with Russia, Putin had no intention of abandoning the ‘China card’ to challenge the existing Western-led international order. Japan’s ostensible realpolitik was overwhelmed by harsh strategic reality.
This explains why Japan has sought to align with European partners, especially since Russia’s invasion. When Kishida attended the G7 Summit meeting in March 2022, he agreed with his European counterparts that the Ukraine invasion shook the very foundations of the entire international order.
Kishida also stressed that Japan would enhance its cooperation with both NATO and the European Union toward a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. During his trip to Europe in May 2022, Kishida repeated his views that the invasion of Ukraine was not just a European problem because ‘Ukraine may be East Asia tomorrow’.
It would be too simplistic to conclude that Russia’s invasion will automatically accelerate China’s unilateral change of the status quo by force in the Indo-Pacific, including Taiwan — Europe and Asia vary dramatically in history, economics and geography. United economic sanctions against Russia by Western countries could also complicate China’s offensive intentions, whose economy is deeply integrated into the global financial system.
But if Russia can successfully make Ukraine a client state and gain a greater sphere of influence in Europe, other revisionist powers in the Indo-Pacific would be significantly encouraged. Even if Russia’s conquest of Ukraine is impossible, a prolonged war could weaken American and European engagement with the Indo-Pacific and significantly affect the strategic balance of the region. This is why Japan has tried to maintain a united approach to Ukraine with other Western partners.
Yet Japan’s decision is not without costs. Russia has been one of a few partners to diversify Japan’s energy resources that are overdependent on the Middle East. Securing a stable supply of energy resources will be the imminent task for the Japanese government in the years ahead. After the war in Ukraine, Japan will be forced to fight a ’three-front war’ with Russia, China and North Korea. With mounting pressure on an existing order by these revisionist powers, Japan’s security environment has become more difficult than ever.
Tomohiko Satake is senior fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies, Japan.
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