Commentary / Japan

Japan and the Skripal poisoning: The U.K.'s fair-weather friend

by James D.J. Brown

Contributing Writer

On Monday, the United Kingdom’s closest international partners began a coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats in response to Moscow’s apparent role in the use of a chemical weapon in the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England. More than 20 countries expelled in excess of 100 Russian diplomats, with the United States alone ejecting 60. This powerful statement of solidarity stands in marked contrast to Japan’s weak response, a decision that raises questions about Japan’s value as an international security partner.

Russia’s alleged use of Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent, to poison the Skripals on British soil has plunged U.K.-Russian relations into their worst crisis in decades. Prime Minister Theresa May accused the Russian state of being guilty of an “unlawful use of force” and announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats. She also presented the incident as being not just an attack against the U.K., but “an affront to the rules-based system.”

The U.K.’s international partners duly responded in what British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson described “as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever.” Yet, there is one notable exception. Despite being presented with the same evidence, the Japanese government has refused to accuse Russia directly, leaving it as the only Group of Seven member to neither endorse the U.K.’s accusation nor expel Russian officials.

Instead, in a phone call with the Russian leader on March 19, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe merely stated that “The use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and, above all, it is important to establish the facts.” Abe used the same phone call to congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin on his election victory and to express his desire for closer cooperation.

The weakness of this response prompted May to immediately request a phone call with her Japanese counterpart on March 20. Undoubtedly the U.K. government was seeking for Japan to make a more forceful statement when Foreign Minister Taro Kono met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov the next day in Tokyo. However, when the countries’ top diplomats met, Kono merely repeated the same vague language as Abe.

What is more, the foreign ministers’ meeting was conducted in a distastefully jovial atmosphere. When Kono joked that the Russian delegation had brought the unseasonable snowfall with them, Lavrov replied, “Well, we haven’t interfered in your elections, so we’ve decided to interfere in your weather.” Kono also gave his Russian counterpart a birthday cake.

The meeting resulted in an agreement to accelerate working-level talks on joint economic activities on the Russian-held islands off the coast of Hokkaido. It was also announced that a bilateral strategic dialogue will be held in Moscow on April 19 at deputy foreign minister level and that further security talks would follow in May.

Japan’s failure to demonstrate real support for the U.K. after the Skripal attack is even more disappointing since it comes at a time when Tokyo and London are developing closer security ties. When May visited Tokyo last August, the two leaders signed a joint declaration that described the countries as “global strategic partners” and recognized that “the security challenges for Japan and the U.K. are now intertwined.” It was also announced that the U.K. would send HMS Argyll, a Royal Navy warship, to Japan in 2018 to take part in military exercises.

The development of this “quasi-alliance” is part of a broader Japanese strategy to supplement its primary security relationship with the U.S. with closer ties with other military powers, including France, Australia and India. The underlying aim is to balance against China’s rise and to secure support for Japan’s vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” However, Tokyo’s refusal to respond more forcefully to the Skripal attack suggests that Japan’s vision of security partnership is all about receiving and not giving in return.

The reason for the Japanese government’s reticence is because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe does not want anything to disturb his pursuit of a territorial deal with Russia. He is set to travel to Russia in May where he will meet Putin for the 21st time.

This visit represents the culmination of Abe’s “new approach” to Russia. Announced in May 2016, this policy involves using economic incentives and the leaders’ “personal relationship of trust” to seek a resolution to the country’s territorial dispute, thereby enabling the signing of a peace treaty.

During his forthcoming talks with Putin, Abe is specifically hoping for a breakthrough on conducting joint economic activities on the disputed islands. Five priority areas have already been selected but the sides are yet to agree on the projects’ legal basis. This is not straightforward because Japan is requesting a special legal framework that enables Japanese entities to operate on the islands without acknowledging Russian sovereignty.

Although small-scale, the projects’ significance would be in enabling the return of an established Japanese presence to the islands for the first time since shortly after their occupation at the end of World War II. It is Abe’s calculation that, by re-establishing Japanese influence on the islands, these joint economic activities can serve as a first step toward the territory’s eventual return.

Even if Japan had a genuine chance of regaining the islands, the Abe administration’s lack of solidarity would be regrettable. The situation is made worse, however, by the fact that Abe has no realistic prospect of achieving a breakthrough. Indeed, just prior to arriving in Japan, Lavrov reiterated the Russian government’s position that any joint projects should be conducted under Russian law. He continued: “The cornerstone should be set not on obsession with the legal side of the matter but primarily joint economic activity. … We really do not see the need to create a supranational body.”

Shrewd Russian diplomats will also recognize the value of preserving the territorial dispute since the prospect of a resolution can continue to be dangled in front of Japanese leaders to induce further economic sweeteners and to lure Japan away from its Western partners.

Instead of being distracted by his quixotic quest to recover the four northern islands and thereby establish his historic legacy, Abe should concentrate on demonstrating that Japan is a reliable security partner and not just a fair-weather friend.

James D.J. Brown is an associate professor of Political Science at Temple University, Japan Campus and editor with Jeff Kingston of “Japan’s Foreign Relations in Asia” (Routledge).

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