In early August 2014, PhD student in International Relations at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Switzerland Kazushige Kobayashi published an article on the RIAC website, analyzing the current state of Russian-Japanese relations in the light of events in Ukraine.
Kobayashi’s main conclusion was that Tokyo “is spinning out of Washington’s orbit and pursuing an independent policy toward Moscow.” The author believes that Japan’s “silent rebellion” against the United States is a strategy under which Tokyo will not oppose Washington openly, but “will covertly pursue an independent policy aimed at maintaining and expanding the Russian-Japanese partnership”. Substantiating this major conclusion, K. Kobayashi refers to the fact that Japanese sanctions against Russia, in contrast to those imposed by America and Europe, have been somewhat symbolic and less stringent. Furthermore, he draws attention to the following facts. Certain Russian politicians involved in promoting bilateral relations were not put on the sanctions list of people denied entry to Japan; in March and May 2014 the head of the country's Security Council Setaro Ati visited Moscow to hold “closed-door meetings” with the Russian leadership; and in March 2014 a Russian-Japanese Economic Forum was held in Tokyo.
Indeed, in the first half of 2014 Tokyo displayed solidarity with G7 condemnation of Moscow's “annexation of the Crimea”, but refrained from adopting serious anti-Russian sanctions. On May 25, 2014 Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that Japan should maintain political dialogue with Russia, although he acknowledged that bilateral relations faced difficulties because of events in Ukraine .
The Japanese Government was seeking to stay aligned with the West on the one hand, while on the other hand it was acting to keep its options open for continuing (albeit in a somewhat truncated format) the Russian policy that Shinzō Abe formulated on becoming Prime Minister in early 2013. This policy is aimed at gradually resolving the territorial issue on the basis of Japan’s compelling stand by developing all-round relations between the two countries and negotiating a peace treaty. In fact, this looks like a strategy of “having one’s cake and eating it”. However, there is little doubt that Abe’s policy was wishful thinking, and Japan would eventually have to make a choice.
The events of July-August 2014 show that this choice has been made – in favor of America. Under pressure from Washington and the influence of deep-rooted pro-American lobby in the Japanese establishment, the Japanese government toughened its stance against Russia .
It should be noted that throughout the “Ukrainian crisis”, the two countries’ leaders had no direct contact, not even by telephone. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe emphasized that he highly valued his good personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow appreciated the presence of the head of the Japanese government at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sochi, while other G7 leaders boycotted the event under somewhat far-fetched pretexts. In sending his authorized representative Setaro Ati to Moscow, Shinzō Abe manages to avoid personal contact with Vladimir Putin, while enabling the Russian leader to maintain contact with other G7 counterparts. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to Russia, initially scheduled for April but then postponed for the summer, has not yet taken place. There has been no direct contact between him and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
At the same time, Fumio Kishida did pay a visit to Kiev in July 2014, where he condemned the “Russian annexation of Crimea” at a meeting with Petro Poroshenko, and signed an Agreement on Economic Assistance with the Minister of Economic Development and Trade of Ukraine  under which Japan will provide 10 billion yen to Ukraine (part of the pledged 150 billion yen or $1.5 billion aid package). It is important to note that, in terms of assisting Ukraine, Japan has outperformed the United States and Europe, since these latter are in no hurry to spend their money without avail, aware that it is likely to disappear on its way down the corrupt corridors of the Ukrainian authorities.
In early August, Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera visited Paris. At a meeting with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian he “recommended,” in view of the current international situation, suspending delivery of the first of two Mistral class helicopter carriers France was under contract to sell to Russia .
Finally, on August 5, 2014 Japan joined the third “package of sanctions” against Russia adopted by the European countries. It is telling that it was U.S. Vice President George Biden, not the U.S. President, who expressed their gratitude for this step to Shinzō Abe .
Japan’s sanctions against Russia are no longer symbolic and have acquired a very practical nature, restricting economic ties between the two countries. In fact, they introduced a ban on funding new economic projects in Russia. In July, Japanese banks refused to finance the purchase of oil from Rosneft by Japanese companies .
On July 29, 2014 the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement describing the latest additional Japanese sanctions as an “unfriendly and short-sighted step based on a deeply mistaken view about the real causes of what is happening in Ukraine.” The following statement was issued: “Japan’s demarche testifies to the fact that Tokyo’s repeated promises to continue efforts for the development of relations with Russia are only a screen, covering Japanese politicians’ inability to go beyond the habitual following in the wake of Washington, pursue an independent policy that would meet the vital national interests of their country.”
Against this background (perhaps unexpectedly for the Japanese side, but a move viewed as fully justified in Moscow), the decision was taken to scrap consultations at deputy foreign minister level scheduled for August that were to cover a range of issues, including the peace treaty. In fact, this means that there is little time left to make preparations for President Putin’s scheduled trip to Japan in autumn, which the Japanese side has foregrounded. Since the Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister’s visit to Moscow is no longer on the agenda, the President’s visit obviously makes no sense – especially with no preparation. In fact, Shinzō Abe admitted as much at a press conference in early August on the results of his trip to Peru, saying “as for the schedule of President Putin’s visit to Japan, nothing has been decided at the moment” and Japan “will examine the scheduling taking into consideration” the opinion of other Group of Seven countries (IOW – Washington).
Thus, Japan's choice to follow the Western course has led to the emergence of negative trends in relations with Russia. Trying to deflect criticism for this, the Japanese side has resorted to the “tried and tested remedy” of the territorial issue. Tokyo issued unexpectedly sharp criticism of the planned Russian command-staff exercise on the Kuril Islands, although this is customary practice that has repeatedly been carried out in the past. But this time, Shinzō Abe issued a statement: “Carrying out these sorts of exercises by the Russian military in the Northern Territories is totally unacceptable. We will issue a strong protest.” (This was done by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.) It should be noted that the U.S. State Department found it necessary to support Japan's position on this issue .
As has often happened, the lack of positive developments in bilateral relations generates negative ones. On August 21, 2014 Russian media made public that Russian Pacific Fleet anti-submarine forces had shut down intelligence activities carried out Japan’s Oyashio submarine in waters bordering the Sea of Japan. Japanese media responded by reporting “intercepting and accompanying two Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers, which had flown over the perimeter of the Japanese islands, without violating the Japanese airspace. It should be noted that the presence of Japanese submarines in the La Perouse Strait, and Russian aircraft near the Japanese islands are regular events. Since both parties carry out such activities in compliance with the relevant international standards, when relations are developing well, these stories tend not to be reported by the media in order to help keep the public calm. Now a different trend is becoming dominant. On August 22, 2014 Russia’s Foreign Ministry handed Japan's ambassador in Moscow a list of Japanese citizens barred from entering Russia, in response to Tokyo’s visa sanctions against several Russian citizens.
In general, Russian-Japanese relations are increasingly slipping into a cooler period, which is certainly not in the national interests of both Russia and Japan. And this is happening through no fault of the Russian side.
On May 24, 2014 President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with heads of leading international news agencies, attended by the representative of the Japanese Kyodo Tsushin, emphasized that Russia has no reason to limit its relationship with Japan. He stressed that Russia has a sincere interest in resolving the problem of the peace treaty.
It is worth noting that the Russian side has taken a realistic, balanced position on the new Japanese government’s interpretation of the country’s right to “collective self-defense”. Russia avoids hasty assessments of certain nationalist outbursts in the country’s internal politics. And Japan was not included in the list of states against which the Russian government has introduced retaliatory “food sanctions.”
Therefore, reversing the negative trend in relations between the two countries depends primarily on the Japanese side. Recent events shed a helpful light on proceedings. When, in the late 1990s, the Russian government carried out counterterrorist operations in Chechnya (in what was a genuine struggle against terrorists), the Japanese government did not support the harsh criticism of Russia for the “excessive use of force” and “violation of human rights,” that was voiced by the United States and several European countries.
Today the Ukrainian authorities are openly using weapons of great destructive force against a civilian population. In Ukraine, innocent civilians are killed and the number of refugees is growing, but there is no criticism of Kiev from the White House.
In those days Tokyo’s policy toward Russia was truly independent and in keeping with its national interests. And this paid off. The end of the 1990s saw the most fruitful development of Russian-Japanese relations in the history of cooperation between the two countries. Nevertheless, since the early 21st century, the new Japanese leadership has emphasized the need to strengthen the country’s alliance with the United States, believing that guaranteed American support will deliver greater foreign policy successes for Japan. However, it has only delivered stagnation in relations between Moscow and Tokyo and seriously complicated Japanese-Chinese relations. Tokyo now seems to be falling into the same trap. Having worsened relations with Moscow and unable to improve relations with Beijing and Seoul, Japan has essentially isolated itself in the region.
The most far-sighted representatives of Japan’s political, academic and civic circles realize this fact, and have backed the pursuit of a self-reliant and independent foreign policy (judging by the article on the RIAC website, Kazushige Kobayashi is one of them). They note that relying on the United States’ support in the event of clashes between Japan and China over the disputed island, is less than justified, whatever assurances the American side might issue. Washington is clearly not going to spoil relations with Beijing because of Tokyo. In this regard, it is worth recalling the events of the early 1970s, when the Nixon administration changed radically its course towards Communist China and began to establish relations with it, without taking the trouble of putting Tokyo in the picture. It put Japanese society in a state of shock.
I would not want to end the analysis of the current state of the Russian-Japanese relations on a sour note. The “window of opportunities” to save all the positive developments that have been achieved in bilateral relations due to considerable efforts of champions of good-neighborliness and cooperation between Russia and Japan, remains open. The two countries’ national interests are not in direct conflict in either political, or economic, or military sphere.
On September 8-10, the 2014 Russian-Japanese Economic Forum is to be held under the auspices of Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Mainichi Shimbun. Over 100 representatives of Japan’s business community are expected to attend. Both leaders may resume contact during the forthcoming G20 and APEC meetings, and the two countries’ foreign ministers may do the same at the sessions of the UN General Assembly. A great deal will depend on whether Tokyo makes adjustments to its policy towards Moscow and returns to its policy of constructive cooperation.
1. Mainichi Shimbun, May 26, 2014.
2. Asahi Shimbun, June 03, 2014.
3. Kyodo News International, July 17, 2014.
4. Kyodo News International, July 25, 2014.
5. Kyodo News International, August 08, 2014.
6. RBC daily, August 13, 2014.
7. Kyodo News International, August 14, 2014.