The Russian decision to send military forces to the Ukraine has created a painful set of choices for Tokyo. Like some in Europe, Japan’s energy dependence on Russia makes the idea of sanctions troubling. Yet Tokyo too is particularly sensitive these days to the international community’s willingness to oppose the use of force to seize territory. With China increasingly challenging its sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea, Japan can hardly hesitate to stand up for others around the globe who are challenged by great power land grabs.
The Abe government has emphasized improving relations with Moscow, seeking to restart long stalled talks over the resolution of their differences over islands to Japan’s north. The lack of a resolution of the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories (or Kurils for the Russians) has prevented a formal peace treaty between the two neighbors. The prime minister has met with Putin five times over the past year. Abe made the first trip to Moscow by a Japanese prime minister in a decade. In November, Japan and Russia held their first 2+2 meeting between their foreign and defense ministers, a new strategic dialogue on Asia prompted largely by a shared interest in the behavior of a rising China. Unlike some of the Western powers, Abe also attended the Sochi Olympics, and agreed to host President Putin in Tokyo this fall, his first trip to Japan since returning to the presidency (he last visited as prime minister in 2009).
Tokyo has a strong interest in sustaining a supply of energy from Russia. With its nuclear power plants still shut, Japan is increasingly dependent on foreign suppliers of oil and gas. Last year, Tokyo spent $266 billion on imported energy (Japan’s Ministry of Finance puts it at 27.4 trillion yen),* the highest ever, and reported a record trade deficit of $112 billion. Japan has upped its imports of LNG since the triple disasters of 2011, and last year consumed a third of global shipments, with 10 percent of its LNG imports coming from Russia. Japan’s imports of oil from Russia also increased by almost half last year to 7 percent. Russia too is interested in diversifying its energy exports, adding Asian as well as European customers to its source of revenues. A new pipeline will improve oil sales to Asia, and Russia is pushing to increase its gas sales to its neighbors in the Far East as well. Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi stated on March 4 that there is no change to Japan’s resource discussions with Russia.
Japan, however, is a longstanding member of the G7, and so has joined with the United States and European powers in issuing the strongest statement of condemnation thus far for Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. Yet clearly Tokyo is uneasy about what this means about their overall diplomatic strategy. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida similarly sought to take a more tempered view of events in Ukraine in his press conference on March 4, noting only that it remained unclear what Moscow’s intentions were regarding its military forces in the Crimea and that Russia had a basing agreement with the Ukraine. When asked about sanctions on March 5, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga offered only a wishful thought: “Our nation’s position is that we strongly call for a peaceful solution and we expect all parties to act carefully, with self-restraint and responsibility.” Suga refused to say whether Japan would boycott the G8 meeting in June.
Tokyo can hardly equivocate, however, about a Russian invasion of the Ukraine, no matter what the premise. Japan relies on the United Nations and other international bodies to confront aggression and to condemn the use of force to settle international disputes. Its own Constitution embodies this concept of self-restraint, and Tokyo has been a staunch defender of the peaceful resolution of sovereignty disputes. Thus, Tokyo will likely be very supportive of the notion of negotiating with Moscow to allow the OSCE or UN to replace Russian troops with international observers.
China’s response to the crisis will be of great interest in Tokyo. China looms large, of course, in Japan’s own neighborhood, and the worry about what lessons Beijing may be learning about the willingness of the international community to sanction the use of force must be part of Tokyo’s calculus. Could the Ukraine crisis produce some old-fashioned horse trading over spheres of influence? Perhaps not. But Putin’s opportunism suggests that opportunism by others may be seen as a more feasible option.
With a simmering territorial dispute in the East China Sea, Japan cannot be seen to equivocate on the principal of territorial integrity and the right of self-determination that underpins the UN Charter. Should the situation in the Ukraine evolve into a Russian push for greater territorial control, or even worse for a division of the Ukraine, Japan’s diplomacy with Moscow will come to a screeching halt.
For now, Japan seems to be holding its breath, joining with its G7 partners to signal displeasure but hoping to avoid sanctions and an end to the progress Abe has so carefully cultivated with Putin.
*Thanks to Peter Landers at the Wall Street Journal for helping us to straighten this out.