Japan faces a dilemma over how to respond to the crisis in Ukraine following the vote Sunday by residents of Crimea, a majority of whom are ethnic Russians, in favor of seceding and joining Russia.
While Japan has been urging Russia to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, it is unclear whether Tokyo will join the United States and the European Union in imposing sanctions on Moscow, as doing so would affect negotiations involving the four Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands off Hokkaido.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been eager to improve relations with Russia, as exemplified by his participation in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics in February despite the absence of U.S. and European leaders in protest of Moscow’s handling of human rights issues.
Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to visit Japan in the fall.
“Japan does not appear to have a clear-cut policy toward the Ukraine crisis,” said Shigeki Hakamada, a professor of Russian affairs at the Niigata University. “Japan faces a dilemma in its dealings with Russia.”
Officials in Tokyo are now closely watching whether Russia will actually annex Crimea following the plebiscite, which the new pro-Western government in Kiev and almost all U.N. Security Council members rejected as having “no validity” as it violates Ukraine’s constitution and was conducted in the presence of Russian forces.
The officials are also monitoring whether the Kremlin will talk with the Ukraine government to defuse tensions and what Moscow will do about Russian forces deployed in Crimea and on the eastern border with Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians live.
“We would like to respond appropriately after confirming debate in related parties such as the EU, Russia’s response (to the Crimea vote) and the situation in Ukraine,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Monday when asked whether Japan will slap sanctions on Russia.
Experts say there is no need for Abe’s government to change its policy of building closer ties with Russia in the long term, but that Japan should clearly pronounce it will never tolerate aggression in Ukraine.
“There is a view in Japan that the government should not take a hard-line approach toward Russia over the Ukraine crisis because it would make it difficult for Tokyo to resolve the territorial issue with Moscow. But I don’t agree with this view,” Hakamada told a briefing at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo last week.
“Japan can share the pain of Ukraine because it is the only country among the Group of Seven major industrialized nations whose sovereignty and territorial integrity have been violated by Russia,” he said.
Near the end of World War II, the Soviet Union, in violation of the Neutrality Pact that was still in force between Japan and the Soviet Union, opened war with Japan, and even after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration, Soviet forces continued their offensive and occupied the four islands between Aug. 28 and Sept. 5, 1945.
The dispute over the islands has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a postwar peace treaty.
While stressing the need for Japan to ensure policy coordination with the United States and the European Union, experts and policymakers question the effectiveness of sanctions on Russia, citing a potential U.S.-EU rift over how strong punitive measures will be, given Europe’s heavy reliance on Moscow for natural gas and other resources.
“Japan in principle will act in concert with the United States and Europe. If Japan acknowledges Russia’s attempt to alter the status quo by coercive measures, it will send a wrong signal to China, which has been increasing its claim over the (Japanese-administered) Senkaku Islands,” said Minoru Kiuchi, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who heads the ruling party’s Foreign Affairs Division.
The leaders of the G-7 — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — have warned that they will boycott a Group of Eight summit Putin plans to host in June in Sochi unless Moscow changes its course on Crimea.
“But as for sanctions by individual states, I think each can decide upon their own circumstance,” Kiuchi said on a Fuji TV program Sunday, alluding to economic interdependence between Europe and Russia.