Japan Exempted from Russian Countermeasures: Russian-Japanese Partnership Reaffirmed
Kazushige Kobayashi is a doctoral student in International Relations at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Switzerland, and a research fellow with the Europe-Asia Programme at the Balkan Security Agenda in Serbia. He holds Bachelor of Economics from Tohoku University in Japan, Master in International Affairs from the Geneva Graduate Institute, and has also studied at University of California at Davis and Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
In the evening of 7 August 2014, Tokyo was struck by a happy surprise: Japan was exempted from Russia’s countermeasures designed in response to Western sanctions. The Jiji Press –a major Japanese media with global networks– immediately reported on its headline that “日本は制裁対象外＝欧米の青果など禁輸,” meaning “Japan to be excluded from Russian counter-sanctions –trade bans to be imposed on Western fruits and other products.” While the contents of Russian countermeasures have not yet been fully materialized, it is evident that Russian-Japanese partnership was given a special consideration by the Kremlin.
So far, Japan is sole country exempted from the newly devised Russian countermeasures; all other countries imposing sanctions against Russia –the U.S., the EU, Australia, Canada, Norway, and Ukraine– will soon face Russia’s countermeasures in one form or another. In my previous blog article “Opening The Sanction Magicbox: Myth of Japanese Sanction Against Russia,” I have consistently argued that the Abe administration made its utmost efforts to make the Japanese sanction on Russia as “soft” as possible. When the West imposed a sector-wide sanction on Russia last week, Western pressure on Tokyo to devise a tougher sanction became dramatically heightened. However, the Japanese government successfully resisted the Western “directive” and initiated its own independent sanction on Crimea, such as import ban on Crimean wines.
Japan’s exemption from the Russian countermeasures provides us a number of important lessons for future diplomatic interaction and international relations.
First, mutual trust plays a profound role at the time of crisis. Tokyo did its very best to preserve Russian-Japanese partnership in the midst of the daunting international crisis. Since March, Prime Minister Abe has been under unprecedented pressure from Washington; however, he was firmly determined to conduct an independent foreign policy towards Russia, strictly adhering to Japanese national interest and not to satisfaction of American policymakers. Most importantly, Moscow rightly understood Abe’s dilemma and responded to his policy with reciprocal consideration. While Russian-Japanese partnership still remains weakly institutionalized, the case of Japan’s exemption vividly demonstrates the magnitude of mutual respect and understanding shared between Moscow and Tokyo. Moscow received signals from Tokyo and Russian leaders were politically capable of interpreting them in a way that was intended by their Japanese counterpart. This highlights a qualitative difference between Russian-Western relations and Russian-Japanese relations.
Second, Abe’s decision to prioritize regional partnership over the vague concept of Western solidarity has brought an unparalleled economic opportunity for both Russian and Japanese firms. From agriculture to finance to energy to infrastructure, Russian-Japanese commercial cooperation today is at its historic high. Japan’s exemption from the Russian countermeasures will only accelerate the current trend, endowing formidable commercial advantage for Japanese firms. With the rapid deterioration of Russian-Western relations, a number of Japanese firms such as JCB found their competitive advantage in Russian market; new entry of Japanese firms into Russian market will be only accelerated in the days to come. Along with Abe’s innovative economic policy, Western sanction on Russia will open a new path for wider and deeper commercial cooperation between Russian and Japanese firms. Considering the Western pressure on the Japanese central government, however, the role of regional institutions and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will be dramatically increased. For example, Miyagi Prefecture has recently launched a new initiative to support Japanese SMEs collaborating with Russian firms, providing a competitive subsidiary of around $15,000 during August 2014-March 2015 for selected bilateral business projects. While Abe administration is still stuck in the politically explosive environment, the role of less visible institutions will saliently augment its strategic value.
Third, as a consequence of Japan’s exemption from Russian countermeasures, the Western pressure on Tokyo will be dramatically elevated. This is not only because Washington and Brussels value the Western solidarity, but because the U.S. and the EU will face an economic imperative to keep the competitiveness of Western firms. Since 1945, major Western powers have been reluctant to enlarge the international decision making circles, including the World Bank and the IMF. However, when the global financial meltdown prevailed in 2008, the West was quick to initiate a new G-20 forum. The naissance of G20 was driven by a political imperative: to maintain the competitiveness of Western firms, the West needed to make sure that all major economies would adopt the same global regulations. In the same vein, recent American pressure on the EU to adopt a tougher sanction scheme on Russia was also economically motivated to keep the competitiveness of American firms. Now, Japan stands alone outside the Russian countermeasure scheme, thus, the West will take every possible measure to minimize the competitive advantage brought to Japanese firms.
Until today, Abe’s major challenge was to convince Moscow that Japan does not intend to harm Russia and ready to preserve Russian-Japanese partnership even at the cost of Western solidarity. The Japanese government was not sure if Moscow shared Tokyo’s concerns. The Kremlin was not sure about Japan’s commitment to their bilateral partnership. But in the end, Abe’s strategy epically succeeded; Moscow rightly interpreted Japanese signals. In the days to come, there will be minor bumps in Russian-Japanese relations, possibly including cancellation of important political meetings. But Moscow and Tokyo have reaffirmed the value of mutual respect, understanding, and trust embedded in the tie between Russia and Japan, which will not be easily forgone in a near future. From tomorrow, Abe’s prime diplomatic task will be to keep resisting the Western pressure as long as possible, preserving international competitiveness given to Japanese firms.
The West criticizes Japan for not fully joining their sanction schemes; but the essence of sovereignty is independent decision. While Western countries are free to choose a path of self-harm by imposing unreasonable sanctions against Russia, Japan does not have any obligation whatsoever to put itself into a sinking boat. After a long period of samurai feudalism and imperial authoritarianism, Japan became a democratic country in 1945. Therefore, Prime Minister Abe’s obligation is held not to those who sitting in Washington or Brussels, but solely to the Japanese people who values stability and economic recovery. While the West has for long been Japan’s prime source of aspiration, recent Western behavior towards Russia is only amplifying instability and economic turmoil. For the first time in the past decades, Mr. Abe is able to assertively resist the Western pressure, precisely because he knows that his independent policy towards Russia meets Japan’s democratic expectations. It is true that Japanese companies are now gaining unfair comparative advantages; but these were brought thanks to the West’s unfair sanctions against Russia. For the West, withdrawing these sanctions will be much easier and less complicated than changing the determined mind of Mr. Abe backed by Japan’s democratic will. If the West is not ready to make the political compromise, it has no choice but witnessing Japanese firms excel and prosper at the cost of Western counterparts. Prime Minister Abe has already made his choice, now is the time for the West, and not for Tokyo, to roll the dice.
 Jiji Press. (2014). 日本は制裁対象外＝欧米の青果など禁輸[Japan to be excluded from Russian counter-sanctions –trade bans to be imposed on Western fruits and other products ]. 7 August, 2014, http://www.jiji.com/jc/c?g=int_30&k=2014080700742.
 Kobayashi, K. (2014). Opening The Sanction Magicbox: Myth of Japanese Sanction Against Russia. RIAC Blog “In-Between East and West,” 21 July 2014, /en/blogs/kazushige-kobayashi/?id_4=1299.
 Russia NOW. (2014). 在⽇通商代表部に聞く⽇露貿易 [The Russian Trade Representative in Japan talks Russian-Japanese Trade Trend]. 6 May 2014, http://jp.rbth.com/business/2014/05/06/48191.html.
 Miyagi Prefectural Government. (2014). 平成２６年度「ロシアビジネス支援事業」[Russian Business Support Initiative for the Japanese Year 26]. 23 July 2014, http://www.pref.miyagi.jp/soshiki/gbgb/offer17-fy26.html.
 On the financial crisis, see, for example, Baker, A. (2010). Restraining regulatory capture? Anglo‐America, crisis politics and trajectories of change in global financial governance. International Affairs,86(3), 647-663.