National / Politics

Japan keeps reaction low-key as nations join forces in expelling Russian diplomats after U.K. poisoning

by Cory Baird

Staff Writer

As more than 20 countries including the United States and many major European nations moved to expel Russian diplomats and intelligence officials over the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil, Tokyo has maintained a low-key response.

During a news conference on Tuesday, the top government spokesman said he hopes the truth will be revealed through the investigation being carried out by the British police and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Asked what Japan will do after many Western nations decided to expel Russian diplomats, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “Japan has told the Russian side that it is unacceptable to use chemical weapons.”

Experts said Tokyo finds itself caught in a dilemma of trying to be on good terms with both its Western allies and Moscow, as Japan pursues its own diplomatic agenda with Russia, in hopes it can make progress on a territorial dispute involving a group of Russia-held islands off Hokkaido. “Japan’s position is awkward because we have all these allies coming out against Russia, but Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe and Foreign Minister (Taro) Kono have not only chose to not expel diplomats, they have not pointed the finger at Russia at all,” said James Brown, a professor of political science at Temple University in Tokyo. “There must be some interesting discussions going on in (the) government right now on whether they can resist the pressure to take action.”

Brown added that the prime minister “knows that if he introduces diplomatic expulsions or even toughens up the government’s statements, it could ruin what Abe feels is a golden opportunity to have a breakthrough” on the territorial dispute.

It is not the first time Japan has appeared reluctant to take a hard line on Russia as a way to keep its diplomatic agenda on track. In response to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, Japan sanctioned Russia less severely than other allies. Tokyo aimed to show coordination with the U.S. and the EU while still “keeping the door open” for diplomacy, according to a July 2016 report by the Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute, a Japan-based think tank. But the same report also said that the actions had political costs, including the postponement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan and the suspension of negotiations on a peace treaty.

Similar to the situation following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the current coordination against Moscow comes at a delicate time for bilateral relations, as diplomats for the two sides are again preparing for an Abe-Putin summit scheduled to be held in Russia at the end of May.

The latest diplomatic fracas stems from a poisoning incident which not only left former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in a coma, but also raised fears that bystanders may have been poisoned as well.

Following a joint statement from the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and the U.S., which singled out Russia and criticized the attack as an “assault” on the U.K.’s sovereignty, British authorities expelled 23 Russian diplomats on March 14.

Rather than stay completely silent on the Russia issue, Sebastian Maslow, an assistant professor at Kobe University’s Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies, thinks Japan will once again try to please both sides.

“I expect Japan to follow the U.S. and EU in terms of rhetoric of condemning Russia’s actions, but not in terms of action in (the) form expelling diplomats,” Maslow said.

He said Japan will likely align with strong international voices condemning Russia’s use of chemical weapons, a stance that is expected to be projected at the upcoming Group of Seven summit of industrialized nations, stressing international norms banning the use of such weapons.

Temple’s Brown, meanwhile, said Tokyo knows “that taking action against Russia would possibly endanger the dialogue to begin with.”