Author: Melissa Mahoney, Johns Hopkins University
Japan’s response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 was lacklustre. It took considerable US pressure to push Japan to act. Once Japan did, its sanctions were largely symbolic. In contrast, its response to the recent invasion of Ukraine has been decisive and resolute.
As of 16 March 2022, Japan has revoked Russia’s status as a ‘most-favoured trading nation’, suspended visa issuance for certain individuals with relations to Russia, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, frozen assets and excluded selected Russian banks from the SWIFT bank messaging system. Japan has also provided Ukraine with humanitarian aid.
A shift in Japan’s stance on negotiations over the Kuril Islands (which Japan claims as the Northern Territories), concern over Russia’s challenge to the rules-based international order, and the renewed importance of the US–Japan alliance explain this change in Japan’s response.
Japan’s stance towards Russia over the Kuril Islands has shifted. Under former prime minister Shinzo Abe, Japan had worked to build a friendly relationship with Russia to come to an agreement over the four southernmost Kuril Islands. But Abe’s courtship was futile. No agreement was achieved and Japan’s image was tarnished by its muted response to the annexation of Crimea.
Current Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida began his term following in Abe’s footsteps, seeking to continue friendly relations with Russia. But this changed after the invasion of Ukraine. Fear of Russia undermining the rules-based international order, coupled with an understanding that Japan holds longstanding US support in the dispute, has seen Japan return to its traditional hard-line posture on the Kuril Islands. This clearly conveyed Japan’s condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and opened the door to the possibility of Japan imposing harsh sanctions on Russia.
A recent uptick in Russian military activity in East Asia has also raised concern. On 15 February 2022, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi reported the detection of a fleet of 24 Russian warships in the waters off Japan. On March 17, another four Russian warships were spotted in the Tsugaru Strait. With large-scale military exercises by the entire Russian fleet unusual this time of year, Kishi believes that the first deployment was a warning to Japan for taking a stand with the United States on Ukraine. The second deployment is believed to have transported troops and equipment to Ukraine.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the then-primary raison d’etre for the US–Japan alliance melted away. In the years that followed, tensions over trade, the absence of a notable enemy and the fading of Cold War memory among the Japanese people whittled away at the alliance. But now, it is once again indispensable to both countries, rekindled by mutual apprehension over the economic and military rise of China, in addition to North Korea’s increasingly capable missile and nuclear capabilities. Closer military cooperation between China and Russia is also a cause for concern.
By following the US lead in implementing sanctions, Japan is demonstrating its desire to become a more proactive counterpart in the US–Japanese alliance. While the alliance now extends to economic security, the deployment of Russian warships to the waters around Japan has served as a reminder of the importance of its military aspect. While the United States continues to shoulder the larger part of the military burden, the recent expansion of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces as well as Japan’s willingness to impose sanctions on Russia mark a shift of expectations for its role in the alliance.
US public opinion surveys consistently rank Japan the most trusted major power in East Asia. The soft power that Japan holds in the region makes it a valuable economic security partner for the United States. Yet, the Japanese response to the situation in Ukraine is built on more than just politics and strategy, but a deep underlying sympathy for the people of Ukraine. Indeed, in a country that is normally unreceptive to an influx of foreigners, cities like Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture are welcoming Ukrainian refugees.
These factors point to a shift in Japanese foreign policy. The difference can be seen in Japan’s response to the invasion of Ukraine, a tougher stance on the Kuril Islands, concern over Russia’s threat to the rules-based order and the US–Japan alliance’s renewed importance. It is one which is no longer focused merely on the country’s survival. Instead, Japan has seized the opportunity of the invasion to take another step into its role as a leader in the Indo-Pacific region and a defender of democracy.
Melissa Mahoney is a student at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
The post Japan’s decisiveness toward Russia and Ukraine first appeared on News JU.