Menu Content/Inhalt
Главная arrow Publications arrow Economy arrow Streltsov Dmitry. Russian-Japanese Relations: a Systemic Crisis or a New Opportunity?
Streltsov Dmitry. Russian-Japanese Relations: a Systemic Crisis or a New Opportunity? Печать E-mail
28.03.2015 г.

Russian-Japanese Relations: a Systemic Crisis or a New Opportunity?

Dmitry Streltsov Doctor of History, Head of the Department of Oriental Studies of the MGIMO University, RIAC expert

Japan joined the sanctions policy initiated by the West against Russia from day one of the escalations in the situation in Ukraine. The first three packages of Japanese sanctions were aimed not so much at punishing Russia, as at demonstrating solidarity with the West on the Ukrainian issue. Starting with the fourth package, Japanese sanctions ceased being symbolic and became sectoral in nature, affecting bilateral cooperation in the financial sector. Given Japan’s entrance into the campaign of pressure against Russia, the question arises whether the former has a long-term strategy towards Russia at this stage, and if so, what that strategy implies and how logically it is being put forward.

Japan’s Ukrainian principles

There are four basic principles that underlie Tokyo’s strategy on the Ukrainian issue. The first is support for the consolidated position of the Group of Seven and, more broadly, of the Western community as a whole. The second is a close affiliation between Japan's position and US policies. The third differentiates the situation in Northeast Asia from the one in Europe. And the fourth principle involves a pursuit of a course of action that might possibly contribute to reaching the strategic goals of Japanese diplomacy, namely the conclusion of a peace treaty with Russia and a resolution of the territorial issue, rather than blocking it.

The first principle – the joint position with the West – is manifested in Tokyo's unconditional support for the postulate of the inadmissibility of changes to the existing system of international borders. Japan regards the reunification of Crimea with Russia as a result of the national referendum and Moscow's support for the unrecognized republics in southeastern Ukraine as part of an attempt to change the status quo, which therefore requires a stern response. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, speaking about the referendum, said that “Japan will not recognize the results” and “will never overlook any attempt to change the status quo by force or coercion.”

During his visit to Belgium in January 2015, Japan’s Foreign Minister reiterated this position, according to which the events in Ukraine are “changing the status quo by force” and are similar in this sense, to the problem of the Northern Territories.

In November 2014, the leader of Japan joined the declaration of the United States and Australia at the G20 summit in Brisbane in opposing “Russia's purported annexation of Crimea and its actions to destabilize eastern Ukraine”.

On January 21, 2015 Fumio Kishida stated that the events in Ukraine were a change in the status quo by force, and the problem of the Northern Territories of Japan – the four South Kuril Islands – also resulted from changes to the situation by force.

The particular emphasis that Japan puts on the respect for the territorial integrity of states is not accidental. Japan faces a long-standing territorial dispute with China, the presence of which it does not recognize, but is forced to reckon with it in its foreign policy actions.

One could argue that Europe's borders have changed repeatedly, including over the last decade (suffice it to cite the Kosovo incident), and Japan demonstrated no particular reaction to this issue then. In this regard, it should be noted that the grounds for the positions of the European Union and Japan on the Crimean issue are fundamentally different. If for Brussels the assessment of the Crimean problem is based on its own perception of the eligibility criteria for changing European borders in the post-Cold War era (which implicitly implies the right of only the West to pass judgment on the border issue in Europe), Japan is guided by the pragmatic consideration of not “provoking” China to take any active steps to change the borders. The Mainichi newspaper explains the logic of the official Japanese position in the following way: If Japan recognizes Russia's actions (in annexing the Crimea), this might prompt China to make the wrong conclusion about the admissibility of changing the status quo in the South China Sea.

The second principle – the unconditional support of the United States on the sanctions issue – stems from the axiom that an alliance with Washington is the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy, which requires particular attention after several “bad” years during the rule of the DPJ cabinet. Tokyo now seeks to avoid under any circumstances not just a breach in bilateral relations with Washington, but even the slightest misunderstanding on the main points of the foreign policy agenda.

The worsening of the security environment in Northeast Asia in recent years, particularly in the context of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile problems and the new challenges posed by the Senkaku issue, are increasing the significance of the American security guarantees for Tokyo. During his visit to Tomsk in September 2014, Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe was quite frank, explaining Japan’s motivation: In terms of national security provisions, Japan is largely dependent on the US. Since Japan faces many problems with China, South Korea and North Korea, it is forced to rely on American military power.

At the same time, Tokyo understands transpacific solidarity as a manifestation of symbolic support for US actions, for example, in the form of oral declarations or taking certain restrictive measures, rather than in the literal sense of the word, i.e. the need to unreservedly “touch the cap” on all decisions taken by Washington toward Russia and reproduce them mechanically. The specific format of anti-Russian sanctions and their scope are defined by Tokyo independently, although it does hold consultations on this issue with Washington and Brussels.

The observance of the unspoken rule under which Japan should not “make hay while the sun shines”, that is obtain unilateral advantages as a result of US sanctions against Russia, is considered of primary importance. For example, Japanese banks cannot grant loans to Russian corporations and profit by them, taking advantage of the departure of American competitors from the Russian market.

It is appropriate to recall that in the recent past, Tokyo had a negative experience with the use of sanctions against Russia, which makes it exercise more caution in this matter. In the first half of the 1980s, Japan unconditionally supported economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, initiated by the United States in connection with the invasion of Afghanistan, and refused to credit a number of promising projects that would develop natural resources in Siberia and the Far East. Meanwhile, a number of large companies from European countries seized the moment and obtained a monopoly position in relations with Moscow, especially in the energy sector. Having realized that its own interests had been prejudiced, Japan for several years had to remedy the consequences of this policy through the surreptitious lifting of its anti-Soviet sanctions.

The third principle is the special emphasis on the international political situation in Northeast Asia and its differences from the one in Europe. Tokyo fears that increased dependence on China due to sanctions would make Russia less independent in shaping its foreign policy and make the country a “junior partner.” This, in turn, is fraught with additional risks for Japan. These alarmist sentiments are intensified by the fact that the leaders of Russia and China have agreed on the upcoming 2015 joint celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which Tokyo regards as a demonstration of solidarity between the two countries on an anti-Japanese basis.

Strengthening Russian-Chinese cooperation in the defense sector is giving rise to particular concern in Tokyo. Japan fears a radical change in the military-strategic situation in East Asia as a result of the qualitative modernization of the Chinese armed forces carried out using the latest Russian weapons and technologies. Although Russia has so far refrained from selling China its most advanced weaponry, Japan is anxious over the prospect of a removal of Moscow’s export restrictions, should the forces in the world polarize further.

Japan’s anxiety is intensified by a strengthening in Russian-Chinese cooperation in the financial and energy sectors that could result in tighter ties between Russia and Chinese markets and technologies.

However, there is another point of view in Japan, according to which the large-scale project of Russian gas exports to China would reduce competition in the region for energy and therefore contribute favorably to lower prices for Japan. Developments on the energy front have forced Tokyo, guided by the rule of hedging risks, to promote a revival of cooperation with Russia in the gas sector. In recent years, Japan and Russia returned to the old idea of building a gas pipeline from Sakhalin to Honshu Island, stretching for 1,300 kilometers and worth about $6 billion. This construction will allow Russia to substantially increase its share of the Japanese natural gas market up to 17 per cent.

The fourth principle – Japan’s commitment to the strategic line of signing a peace treaty with Russia – makes, for obvious reasons, Tokyo’s motivation in relations with Russia entirely different from that of the West. Progress in resolving the territorial issue has become important evidence of Shinzo Abe's foreign policy successes, which is of vital importance for him amidst a not quite favorable situation for the Japanese economy, which is affecting his electoral ratings. In this regard, great hopes are set on President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan, scheduled for 2015, during which, according to common expectations at the grassroots level, Shinzo Abe will be able to drive the territorial issue from a deadlock. However, surveys indicate a fairly widespread opinion that there is little chance for solving this problem only on the basis of the conservative position of “a one-time return of the four islands”, which therefore necessitates certain flexibility from Tokyo.

Russia's reaction to Japanese sanctions

As for Russia, its position in relation to Japan and the intensified anti-Russian components in its foreign policy has remained neutral-friendly, which has been particularly evident when compared to other Western countries. In addition, in contrast to Japan’s East Asian neighbors, Russia has refrained from criticizing the new security course of Japan and the new interpretation of the right to collective self-defense. It did not impose restrictive measures against Japan on imports of food or other goods, as was the case with Europe.

Russia's desire to establish genuinely good-neighborly relations with Japan is not of an ad hoc nature and reflects the country's long-term strategy, which manifested itself in the period preceding the Ukrainian crisis. Back in 2012, despite the displeasure of Beijing, Russia brought the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (ESPO) to its Pacific coast, allowing Japan and other Pacific countries to buy oil from Eastern Siberia. When in 2012 the icebreaker “Xue Long” (Snow Dragon) became the first Chinese vessel to sail all along the Northern Sea Route, Russia supported Japan’s request for a permanent observer status at the Arctic Council, ignoring China’s similar bid. In 2013, Moscow supported Tokyo’s bid to host the Olympics in 2020. Thus, Russia is trying to pursue a balanced and deliberate policy in relations with Japan.

Personal diplomacy has also gained momentum, based on a relationship of trust between the Russian president and the Japanese prime minister. Since Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012, six summits have taken place. The dialogue between the two leaders continued even in 2014: there were several phone conversations, exchanges of personal messages and birthday greetings, as well as two meetings at major international forums. During the last meeting held on November 9, 2014 within the framework of the APEC summit in Beijing, the parties expressed their views on the events in Ukraine and confirmed their intention to continue the dialogue over a peace treaty and to prepare for Putin's visit to Japan, scheduled for 2015.

Three scenarios for the development of bilateral relations

What prospects can be expected for Russian-Japanese relations under the current circumstances? There appear to be three main scenarios: confrontational, “neutral” and optimistic.

The confrontational scenario implies a further escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, the increased involvement of Japan in the sanctions war against Russia, a curtailing of hard-established contacts and a decreased level of economic interaction. This course will bear no positive fruit for the national interests of Japan. The territorial issue will not have any prospects for resolution. Russia will continue to drift towards China both economically and politically.

Under the “neutral” scenario, Japan will continue its policy of fine balancing, displaying solidarity with the West, but avoiding an irreversible deterioration of relations with Moscow. The sanctions will not be significantly stiffened, although Tokyo will not lift them. This most likely trajectory involves certain risks associated with the primary use of the reactive approach, i.e. decision-making “as the occasion requires.” The situation could rapidly deteriorate for Japan against its will, should, for example, its reaction to certain events be belated, inadequate or missing.

Finally, within the framework of the positive scenario, Japan will actively develop economic and political relations with Russia, breaking away from the united front of the West and lifting the anti-Russian sanctions. This scenario greatly promotes the possibility of concluding a peace treaty and solving the problem of territorial demarcation. The prospects that this scenario will prevail are gaining ground due to the victory of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party in the lower house elections. This victory gives Shinzo Abe a free hand in shaping the policy towards Russia, as his domestic position becomes stronger and his “nationalist” reputation makes it hard to accuse him of betraying national interests, even if he displays certain flexibility.

The fact that the Ukrainian issue does not affect Japan directly can play a positive role, since such an approach will not be perceived by the public opinion as a “betrayal.” Finally, some anti-American sentiment traditionally exists in Japanese political circles, based on the awareness of differences in identity, and in some cases – of significant differences between Japanese and American national interests.


It is too early to judge which scenario will be occur, but the general vector in Russian-Japanese relations will be most likely shaped by US-Russian relations. The situation in Ukraine will play the key role here. If it stabilizes, Japan, whose relations with Moscow have been less spoiled than those of other Western countries, can objectively become a bridge for establishing informal contacts between Russian leadership and the West. We can expect that the need for normalizing these contacts will only gain ground next year due to the anticipated updating of the place and role of Russia in international relations.

However, it is clear that Japan, realizing that any rapid progress in resolving the territorial dispute with Moscow is unlikely, will not rush with new initiatives towards Russia. In addition, Tokyo will be encouraged to take a more restrained approach because of the worsened economic situation in Russia, which it perceives as an instrument to make Moscow more “compliant”.

RIAC 02 february 2015

« Пред.   След. »
Институт Дальнего Востока РАН