Ukraine crisis: Japan opts for stronger alliance with US

japan-russiaThe crisis in Ukraine culminating in the Russian annexation of Crimea has created a delicate dilemma for the foreign policy establishment in Japan.  Considering the close and warm relations that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe developed with President Vladimir Putin during the last one year, not many in Japan expected their government to so strongly support its Western allies in their condemnation of Russia. Yet, the Japanese government went the whole hog to stand by the G-7 countries.

From the start, the news about Russia’s incursions into Ukraine aroused serious concerns in Japan. Many worried as to what would happen to the carefully crafted Abe diplomacy, seeking to build new economic and energy ties with Moscow. Though Japanese Trade Minister Toshimitsu Motegi asserted on March 4 that there would not be any change in the course of Japanese policies, the crisis in Ukraine was perceived to carry implications that went beyond the Tokyo-Moscow bilateral relations. On March 7, in a teleconference, both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Abe agreed that the Russian action posed a serious threat to international security and peace.  There was considerable apprehension in Japan that China could take advantage of the Russian precedent to further its own strategic goals in Asia.  The Yomiuri Shimbun editorially commented that “The Crimea issue has massive implications for Japan which faces China’s repeated intrusions into Japanese territorial waters in areas near the Senkaku Islands in the Okinawa Prefecture.”

Japan does not support territorial acquisitions by means of external intervention. It has always opposed countries using force or other devices   to change the status quo.  On March 18, speaking at the Japanese Diet, Prime Minister Abe condemned Russia for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity and threatened to enforce severe sanctions against Russia. Trade Minister Motegi himself decided to stay away from a meeting of a Russian investment forum scheduled to be held in Tokyo on March 19. It is also reported that Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is likely to postpone his visit to Moscow scheduled in April. The statement made by Mr Kishida on March 18 underlined the following core aspects of Japan’s position on the crisis.

1. The referendum held in Crimea violated the Constitution of Ukraine. It has no legal effect and Japan does not recognise it.

2. Japan deplores Russian recognition of the independence of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea which infringes on unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Japan can never overlook an attempt to change the status quo with force in the background.

3. In view of the above, Japan has decided to take measures such as suspending consultations for easing visa regulations, freezing the launching of negotiations for a new investment agreement, an outer space cooperation agreement and an agreement for the prevention of dangerous military activities.

4. Japan strongly urges Russia to withdraw its recognition of the independence of Crimea and not to attempt to annex it, observing international law, and respecting Ukraine’s unity, sovereignty and integrity.

At the G-7 meeting Abe repeated that Japan could not tolerate any attempts to change the status quo by coercion. He also stressed that the Ukraine issue was a challenge to the entire global community, including Asia. Japan was also a party to the G-7 decision to call off the G-8 meeting, scheduled to be held in the Russian Black sea resort town of Sochi. On the contrary, they decided to hold a separate meeting in early June at Brussels without Russia’s participation. They further warned that they would impose more stringent sanctions against Russia if it further escalated its action in other parts of Ukraine. Japan also showed its solidarity with its Western allies by readily agreeing to extend to Ukraine financial assistance worth $1.5 billion as part of the International Monetary Fund’s package for the Kiev government.

japan-russia1Having demonstrated his solidarity with the G-7 countries, the crucial question Japan faces now is: Can Abe afford to ignore Japan’s need to keep Moscow in a reasonably friendly mode? In the last one year, Abe has carefully cultivated his relations with President Putin taking into account the larger energy and strategic interests of his country. His visit to Moscow in April 2013 achieved a major diplomatic breakthrough in that both countries agreed to resume negotiations on the pending territorial question. They also agreed to institute a 2+2 annual consultation meeting. Russia became the third country after the US and Australia to have this arrangement at the ministerial level with Tokyo. The first meeting was held in Japan in November 2013 when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu met their Japanese counterparts to discuss a wide range of strategic and regional issues, including counter terrorism and joint anti-piracy naval exercises. Later, in February 2014, Abe, unlike President Obama and other allies,   attended the Winter Olympic Games held in Sochi and made a good impression on the Russians. President Putin is scheduled to make an official visit to Japan in autumn this year. It is now open to question whether he will stick to his schedule.

The Ukraine issue occurred when both Japan and Russia were poised to enter a new stage in their relations. Going by Japan’s response to the crisis, it appears that Tokyo attaches more importance to its alliance with the US than to the prospects of a robust Russo-Japanese partnership. Many in Japan believe that the Ukraine crisis has made the US rebalance to Asia far more important and relevant in view of the numerous ethnic, territorial and national identity issues still prevailing in Asia and some of them could become flashpoints at any juncture. Finally, with President Obama scheduled to make a visit to Japan in April, Abe is keen to maintain full-spectrum solidarity with the US.

(Prof K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. One of the leading Indian scholars in the field of Japanese Studies, His Majesty the Emperor of Japan in 2011 conferred on him the Order of the Rising Sun in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the advancement of Japanese Studies and the promotion of the understanding of Japan in India).