Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Japan's Ukraine Dilemma
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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Japan's Ukraine Dilemma


The situation in Ukraine continues to have a geopolitical impact on the Asia-Pacific region. As I wrote earlier, China’s instinct to support Russia is resulting in some strange contortions to Beijing’s traditional insistence on non-interference.  But China’s not the only East Asian nation having to do quick diplomatic calculus—Japan is in a similar position. In fact, Tokyo might be even worse off, because it would ideally want to enjoy a close relationship with both Washington and Moscow, a balancing act that is looking more and more impossible.

Japan’s relationship with the U.S., underpinned by a formal security alliance, has been the major underpinning of Tokyo’s foreign policy for over 60 years. The relationship is arguably even more important for Japan today, as Tokyo seeks to bolster its ability to deal with an ever-stronger China. As with any alliance, the two do not have completely aligned interests, however. The Ukraine situation—which has essentially devolved into a confrontation between the West and Russia—represents one such divergence.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made improved ties with Russia a foreign policy priority, saying this bilateral relationship has “the greatest latent potential anywhere.” Abe has met with Putin five times since coming to power in 2012, more than he has met any other foreign leader. Abe also attended the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics, as did Chinese President Xi Jinping (Western leaders such as U.S. President Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron were notably absent). Abe visited Russia in April of 2013, becoming the first Japanese Prime Minister to do so in a decade. Putin is expected to come to Tokyo in the fall. Japan and Russia have also created a new dialogue mechanism, “2+2” meetings between both sides’ foreign and defense ministers.

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As a sign of warming relations, Japan and Russia are conducting talks to try and resolve the issue of the Northern Territories (known as the Kurils in Russia). This territorial dispute has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities. The document would be an important symbolic sign of renewed Japan-Russia ties, and Japan is hoping the Ukraine crisis won’t derail the negotiations.

Japan’s ties to Russia are largely fueled (pardon the pun) by energy concerns. Japan’s nuclear power plants have remained closed since the Fukushima disaster, meaning Japan is dependent on energy imports. Japan imports 7 percent of its oil and 10 percent of its LNG from Russia and does not want to jeopardize this supply. The potential for Western sanctions on Russia that might cut off access to these energy sources probably keeps Japan’s leaders up at night.

However, in a piece for Forbes, the Council on Foreign Relation’s Sheila Smith pointed out another aspect of the dilemma, in addition to the choice between backing Russia and backing the U.S. As Smith wrote, “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.” For Japan, the question of what international precedent might be set in Ukraine is an important one.

These conflicting calculations are reflected in Japan’s official statements on the Ukraine issue. As a member of the G7, Japan signed on to a G7 Leaders Statement harshly criticizing Russia. In the statement, the G7 leaders “condemn the Russian Federation’s clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, in contravention of Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter and its 1997 basing agreement with Ukraine.” The statement also committed the G7 nations “to support Ukraine in its efforts to restore unity, stability and political and economic health to the country.”

However, Japan’s independent political statements have made it clear Tokyo is not quite comfortable with that stance. Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida told the press that “Japan’s stance [is] to urge all the parties concerned to behave with maximum self-restraint and responsibility.” This statement avoids singling out Russia for condemnation and implies both sides share responsibility for settling the issue—quite different from the confrontational tone of the G7 statement.

Another official statement on Ukraine from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs included a call for all parties “to fully observe the relevant international laws including the Agreement on the Status and Conditions for Presence of the Russian Federation Black Sea Fleet on the Territory of Ukraine, and to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Kishida left out this section in his press conference, perhaps to soften Japan’s stance. Kishida has confirmed that Japan has no plans to alter plans for diplomatic talks or trade arrangements with Russia, an early indication that Japan would prefer not to join a G7 boycott of the G8 summit scheduled to be held in Russia later this year.

Still, as much as Japan would like to improve ties with Moscow, it can’t afford to jeopardize its close relationship with the U.S. A source told The Asahi Shimbun that Japan “keeps a balance between the United States and Russia” in its formal statements, trying not to go too far in criticizing Russia while going far enough to satisfy the U.S. It hasn’t been an easy balance to strike, considering how far apart Washington and Moscow are.

An unnamed diplomatic source told Reuters that Japanese officials “are in a state of shock” over the Ukraine situation. “It is a big pain in the back for the Japanese government,” the source added. Another source, identified as a “high-ranking Japanese government official,” told The Asahi Shimbun that “Russia’s act goes beyond tolerable levels. If Japan takes a pro-Russia stance, the Japan-U.S. alliance could collapse.”

On Friday, Obama held a phone conversation with Abe about the Ukraine situation. According to a White House press release, “the two leaders agreed that Russia’s actions are a threat to international peace and security and emphasized the importance of preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” However, according to the statement Obama and Abe also “noted that there is an opportunity for Russia to resolve the situation diplomatically, in a way that addresses its interests as well as those of Ukraine and the international community.” Japan has little choice but to hold out hope that such a diplomatic solution can be reached.

In a statement after his visit to Sochi in February, Abe promised to “make this year one in which we make dramatic progress in Japan-Russia relations.” The Ukraine crisis threatens to not only prevent “dramatic progress,” but even to erode the progress Abe has already made in warming ties with Russia. And with China taking care not to even hint at criticism of Russia, Beijing’s ties with Moscow will likely warm up at precisely the time Tokyo’s are deteriorating. It’s one more reminder that, in the complicated game of geopolitics, unexpected crises can overturn foreign policy plans at any moment.

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