[Asia’s Next Page] Japan’s stake in the Ukrainian crisis

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Since February 26, Russia has engaged in full and continuous military action, amounting to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He recently ordered his nuclear deterrent forces to be on high alert, with the European Union entering the fray by providing arms assistance to Kyiv, further escalating tensions.

Russia’s “premeditated, unprovoked and unjustified attack” forced Japan to adopt global financial sanctions and support with the United States and other Group of Seven (G7) economies to isolate Russia in order to end Russian aggression in Ukraine.

What has been Japan’s position on the Ukraine crisis since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and how is its stake in the Russian-Ukrainian war different?

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The Northern Territories of Japan, seen here in an aerial view of the northern part of Hokkaido.

Tokyo on the annexation of Crimea

As Russia’s maritime neighbor, Japan’s approach to Russian aggression has been somewhat tempered in the past. A dispute over the Northern Territories ー four Hokkaido islands consisting of Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashi and Etorofu ー which were occupied by Russia since 1945, favored this lukewarm approach.

During his visit to Russia in April 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe research resolve the dispute by accelerating negotiations to conclude a Russian-Japanese peace treaty that has remained absent since the end of World War II. At the time, Tokyo hoped that a further push to improve relations with Moscow and in-depth talks for the signing of the peace treaty could bring the Northern Territories back to Japan.

As a result, Tokyo was interested in continued and constructive diplomacy with Russia and feared that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s condemnation of the 2014 annexation of Crimea could seriously shame any progress in these efforts.

Abe faced a significant dilemma over how to handle the Crimean crisis and how to balance Japan’s response with aligning itself with its Western partners, notably the United States and the European Union. Thus, Japanese equities were somewhat more subdued than those of other G7 members. Although Tokyo eventually followed suit and imposed sanctions, they were nonetheless criticized as limited and inefficient.

Yoshimasa Hayashi, Minister of Foreign Affairs

Policy change?

This time, Japan chose to take a tougher stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2014, Kishida was navigating this situation as Japan’s then foreign minister. Today, he faces an even greater challenge for Russia as prime minister.

Although his administration has been urged to respond with faster and more effective action, the Northern Territories remains a problem for Japan and a source of concern behind the strength of sanctions Tokyo may impose on Russia. In fact, Japan only joined the international sanctions on February 28, several days after the United States, United Kingdom and European Union imposed sanctions.

In a telephone conversation on February 26 between Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, both agreed on the need to respond to the Russian invasion and reject the unilateral aggression of Moscow to change the status quo. However, Hayashi cautiously refused to resort to sanctions, even though he promised Japan will continue”[staying] in contact with the rest of international society.

Such an initial reluctance to introduce harsh sanctions against Russia in the event of an invasion stemmed from fears that it would disrupt negotiations for the return of the islands and lead to a new deadlock over the treaty.

As tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the West escalated, Japan stressed its diplomatic efforts to seek substantive dialogue and negotiations to defuse tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Japan indicated that it work in close collaboration with the United States and in coordination with the G7 to defuse what had become the most tense showdown between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

For example, in a phone call between Kishida and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the two discussed close collaboration to promote de-escalation and offer consistent support to Ukraine. On February 15, during a call between Kishida and Ukrainian President Volodymyr ZelenskyKishida declared his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and reiterated the need for “tenacious diplomatic efforts” to resolve tensions.

On February 17, Kishida again pledged continued diplomatic efforts during a phone call with Vladimir Putin, where Moscow assured that it was not planning an invasion.

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Passengers wait to be evacuated on the platform inside Lviv railway station, Sunday, February 27, 2022, on a train to the safety of Europe as the Russian invasion continues. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Take a tough stance

Although he continues to face many of the same challenges as Abe in Japan-Russia relations, Kishida seems willing to take a tougher and more proactive stance, moving away from the balancing act.

In many ways, the geopolitical and strategic environment Kishida faces today is markedly different from that of 2014. On the one hand, Japan is reporting a accumulate of Russian warships in Japanese waters in recent weeks, which is interpreted as a Warning in Japan for siding with the United States and Ukraine.

Additionally, compared to his predecessor, Kishida is also dealing with an incredibly assertive China and worries about the potential ramifications an invasion of Ukraine will have on the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. He recognizes the importance to act against violations of international law and territorial integrity to preserve the status quo.

In this context, following Putin’s recognition of the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at the end of February, Prime Minister Kishida announced a series of economic sanctions against Russia and the two pro-Russian separatist regions. These included banning trade with these areas, freezing assets and suspending visas.

Kishida also encouraged Russia to “resume its efforts to resolve the impasse through a diplomatic process” and denounced this action as a violation of international law.

More recently, in a new round of sanctions, Japan has also frozen assets of the Russian central bank and helped other countries kick Russia out of QUICK in a blow to the Russian economy. The rapid imposition of these penalties also suggests changing expectations that efforts to appease Putin will lead to the return of the Northern Territories.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announces new sanctions against Russia linked to its continued invasion of Ukraine.

Tokyo’s view

For the people of Japan, there are potential implications higher oil prices resulting from anticipated disruptions in the supply of Russian oil. However, Kishida said that Japan would not be affected by any energy shortages because there are enough crude oil reserves for 240 days and LNG for 3 weeks.

Tokyo even has diverted certain LNG shipments to Europe to counter disruptions the EU may face given its energy dependence on Russia.

For Japanese nationals in Ukraine, Japan promised to do everything possible to protect them. So far, a liaison office has been established in the western city of Lviv and the government has organized repatriation flights.

The United Nations General Assembly met on February 23 to discuss developments in Ukraine. Japan’s representative to the UN, Kimihiro Ishikanereiterated Tokyo’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and highlighted the sanctions Japan has imposed as a result.

He said “unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion are unacceptable wherever they occur.” This is particularly poignant given speculation that a successful Russian invasion of Ukraine could embolden China vis-à-vis Taiwan, which would have destabilizing effects for Japan and the Indo-Pacific.

RELATED: Invasion in Ukraine: It’s time for Beijing to rethink Taiwan

In the early hours of February 24, Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine under the guise of carrying out the “demilitarization and denazification” of the country. Immediately after the invasion, Kishida remark that Japan would swiftly take action against Russia and coordinate with the international community in response to developments.

A virtual G7 meeting later, on February 24, condemned the invasion as a “threat to the rules-based international order”, requiring coordinated and severe sanctions in response. After the G7 meeting, Japan decided to follow in the footsteps of the United States and Europe and imposed a new set of punishments on Russia. These include the freezing of assets held by Russian banks, further visa suspensions and, most importantly, export controls on technology products like semiconductors.

Kishida Underline the importance of the invasion, emphasizing its significance “not only in Europe but in Asia and beyond”, projecting its force against unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force.

Japan’s stake in the Ukrainian crisis stems not only from its geographical position as Russia’s maritime neighbour, but also from its status as a G7 power. While Tokyo sought to establish positive relations with Russia under Prime Minister Abe’s administration, Japan’s position has now changed significantly. This is not only due to Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, but also to the dramatically altered regional security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, where Japan must account for the impact that actions of Russia may have on China’s position in the region.

As a result, Tokyo is likely to stand firmly with its G7 partners and present a coordinated front vis-à-vis Russia as the crisis unfolds.

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Author: Dr. Jagannath Panda

Dr. Jagannath Panda is the (incoming) Head of the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA) at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden, among other research positions.

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