The Russia–Ukraine War and Japan – Challenges Now and in the Future

Migration Crisis
Photo: Migration crisis on the border with Belarus

By Fumiaki Kubo

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a wake-up call to Japan. This is not just because Russia is Japan’s neighbour, but also because China is increasingly a threat to Japan’s disputed territories, as well as to Taiwan. From Japan’s viewpoint, Russia’s invasion must not succeed, in order to deter other countries in East Asia from trying to change the status quo unilaterally by force.

What Ukraine means for Japan

Although Japan and Ukraine are located far from each other, they have at least one thing in common: Russia as their neighbour. Besides Russia, Japan’s neighbours include China and North Korea. Chinese military spending is aboutover sfiveix times larger than that of Japan and growing at a pace of 7 per cent annually as of 2022. China is threatening the Senkaku Islands (the Diaoyu Islands, in Chinese), over which are an inherent part of Japan claims sovereignty and which are now under its administrative control. North Korea has already launched missiles over seventeen times this year.

Japanese people are deeply immersed in pacifism and self-complacency, so what happened to Ukraine on 24 February 2022 was truly shocking to them. Russia’s war on Ukraine was full-scale and President Vladimir Putin’s move was beyond imagination.

In light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Kishida administration concluded that unity with the US, NATO, and Australia is paramount, given the existing tension in the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan.

For Japan, no country should attempt a unilateral change of the status quo by force. This has been the country’s most important principle regarding international relations since 1945, and it has done its best to observe it. Japan believes that the principle, shared by the US and European countries, is now being undermined not only by Russia but also by China, which has attempted to change the status quo unilaterally by force in the East and South China Sea, as well as in Taiwan.

Japan’s public response in 2014 and 2022

Japan’s responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and to its annexation of Crimea in 2014 are strikingly different. In particular, Japan’s approach in 2014 was largely different from that of the US and many European countries, in that it imposed weaker sanctions on Russia than these countries. The difference in approach was due to then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s concern about disrupting negotiations with Moscow over four Russian-held islands off eastern Hokkaido over which Japan has a claim. The country maintained the negotiations with Russia without success and received public criticism from the Obama administration’s senior officials.

In 2022, the impact on Japan of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been dramatically different. Nonetheless, many Japanese individuals, liberals and leftists in particular, tend to believe that Japan’s security and peace will remain guaranteed if the country continues to follow Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, i.e., the “peace clause”. They also believe that Japan must maintain peace by refraining from invading other countries. The watchword for them has been, “Do not repeat the mistakes of the 1930s and 40s.” They do not consider the possibility of Japan being attacked.

Their psyche is deeply entrenched in Japan’s postwar pacifist political culture, and they believe it is still the same world. In Japan, several experts in Russian politics have also criticised the United States and the NATO for their lack of generosity and kindness towards Russia after 1991. In particular, they have criticised NATO for expanding the organisation eastward.

Government Response

The Government’s response

For other Japanese individuals, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call. Considering President Putin’s statement regarding the purpose of invading Ukraine, that Russia has to liberate the Ukrainians from neo-Nazi rulers, some Japanese surmised that President Putin might say that he must liberate the Japanese from the oppression at the hands of ultra-nationalistic neo-militarists.

Prime Minister Kishida moved quickly to divert liquefied natural gas to European countries, apply tough sanctions, and provide Ukraine with supplies such as bulletproof vests, helmets, and drones, financial aid, and humanitarian assistance, including measures to admit refugees to Japan. This resulted in over one thousand Ukrainians coming to Japan. However, Japan has not sent any weapons, because of legal constraints, and PM Kishida has stated that Japan will not abandon its stake in the Sakhalin project, because it is essential to the country’s energy security2. Nonetheless, Japan has worked towards keeping up with other G7 member countries in its response to the crisis in Ukraine.

Russia may have committed the same kind of mistake as China in assuming that the US is weak and incapable of standing up against it.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the larger party of the governing coalition, also responded quickly. On 26 April 2022, the LDP’s Research Commission on National Security presented to PM Kishida a set of groundbreaking recommendations to strengthen Japan’s defence capabilities. These recommendations included obtaining a “counterstrike capability” and aiming for a defence budget equivalent to 2 per cent of the GDP in five years. It is currently below 1 per cent.

The general public seems to support the LDP’s proposals. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun’s poll conducted on 3 to 5 June 2022, 19 per cent of respondents supported the idea to more than double defence expenditure, 34 per cent of them supported the proposal to increase it between 1 per cent to 2 percent, 35 per cent insisted that it be at the current level, while 6 per cent demanded to decrease it. Given the governing coalition’s resounding victory at the House of Councillors election on 10 July this year (the less powerful of the two Houses of the Diet, but still important), these recommendations will likely be realised, however gradually.

Nato Summit
Photo: during an extraordinary NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Thursday, March 24, 2022.

Underlying national security considerations in Japan
In light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, PM Fumio Kishida’s cabinet concluded that unity with the US, NATO, and Australia is paramount, given the existing tension in the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan.

Japan has enjoyed peace since 1945. The country was at the periphery of the Cold War, in which the US almost single-handedly contained the Soviet Union in Asia. However, in the first two decades of this century, Japan’s security environment has deteriorated dramatically. The land that Japan has inherently regarded as its own has been threatened constantly since 2010, and the country is unsure whether it can defend it unassisted. Japan is now forced to recognise that it is at the forefront of the US–China rivalry and a direct party to it. It can neither escape confrontation nor just depend on the US. It has to actively work towards defending itself.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, transatlantic solidarity has been impressive, in that the US and many NATO-member countries in Europe, which had been divided during the Trump administration, achieved unity over how to respond to the crisis in Ukraine. However, what is more impressive is the solidarity between Atlantic countries and some Pacific countries, including Japan, Australia and, to some extent, South Korea.

Even before the invasion, the UK, France and, to a lesser degree, Germany expressed serious concerns about China. They took actions of significant military implications, such as sending a carrier, frigates, and other warships to Asia, and conducted joint exercises with the US and Japan. In 2021, the US, the UK, and Australia signed a trilateral security pact called AUKUS, which would allow Australia to own nuclear submarines and jointly develop supersonic missiles. The Quad, which is a security cooperation dialogue among Japan, the US, Australia, and India, held the second in-person summit meeting in Tokyo in May 2022. Although the Quad is not a military alliance, it has contributed to strengthening unity and cooperation among the member countries over the past five years, based on their common concerns about China’s growing assertiveness.

Since PM Abe advocated a Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision in 2016, PM Yoshihide Suga and PM Kishida inherited the idea, which has been supported by the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as other major democratic countries such as Australia and the UK. This is because they share the same misgivings.

Biden’s visit to Tokyo

President Biden and PM Kishida participated in an in-person meeting in Tokyo in May this year. This meeting was an epoch-making event in the history of US–Japan relations. The US reconfirmed its pledge to provide extended nuclear deterrence to Japan, while Japan announced that it would substantially increase the defence budget and acquire counterstrike missile capabilities. The second in-person Quad summit meeting was held the next day in Tokyo. In this meeting, President Biden announced the launch of a new international economic framework called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Thirteen countries have joined it as initial members. Remarkably, although all participant countries were bearing in mind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the focus of discussion was largely China. These meetings were exceptional, in that they brought about substantial results.

In May 1951, Omar Bradley, the chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress that the Korean War was “a wrong war at a wrong place at a wrong time with a wrong enemy”. The US, Japan, and Australia’s understanding of the Ukrainian crisis might be similar, with China now being regarded as the more serious threat to the region and the entire world order.

The dangers of underestimating the US

Since the beginning of this century, China seems to have underestimated the US’s power and influence, as well as its willingness to stand up against China. In China’s view, the US made only some token protests regarding cyber-theft, human rights violations, and so on, particularly during the Obama administration, but no severe sanctions have been applied to China so far. The US began the Freedom of Navigation Operation in November 2015 but it seems that there has been no significant change in behaviour of China in the region. Ashton Carter, the fourth and last Secretary of Defence under President Obama, criticised the delay involved in commencing the operation3. Only after a year into the Trump administration did the US initiate substantial measures, including tariffs on imports from China, sanctions in response to human rights abuses in Uighur, and the provision of large-scale military assistance to Taiwan. This may have initially surprised China, but it soon detected the weakness in Trump’s approach, particularly in his lack of long-term and comprehensive strategic calculations, as well as his economic-based, and even ego-centred, bargaining mentality.

After President Biden unexpectedly announced the US’s tough approach toward China in early 2021, China finally realised that a new era of US–China relations was emerging. However, several of the US’s actions, such as the premature withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021 and the outright refusal to send US troops to Ukraine, continue to contribute to China’s belief that the US is steadily weakening.
President Biden’s policy toward China is multifaceted, long-term, and more methodical than Trump’s in several ways. First, Biden is attempting to build a broad international coalition and consensus to send a strong message to China that the US-led international community will not accept its behaviour on the international scene. Second, the US will continue its military build-up and strengthen the economic security measures, in case the first approach is ineffective.

Russia may have committed the same kind of mistake as China in assuming that the US is weak and incapable of standing up against it. In fact, Russian and China are witnessing a more determined world posture by President Biden after 24 February, 2022.The US can overwhelm Russia if it fully mobilises its financial and military resources, although the task is not easy to achieve. Currently, there exists a rare bipartisanship in the US Congress. This bipartisanship has passed the Lend-Lease to Ukraine and provided $40 billion worth of financial assistance to that country.

However, both China and Russia may be accurate about the vulnerability in the US domestic politics, in that the country’s extension of support to Ukraine might gradually decline and that accelerating inflation might spur a strong backlash of an isolationist tendency.

In this regard, the outcome of the 2024 election in the US may be crucial, or even fatal. If Trump is re-elected, or a candidate with a similar viewpoint is elected, the US administration might no longer extend support to Ukraine, or its attitude toward the Russia–Ukraine war might become unpredictable at best. This is probably the concern that may countries share including Japan that now support Biden Administration’s posture toward Russian and China.

This concern has led Japan to augment its self-defence capabilities, strengthen relations with like-minded countries such as Australia and the UK, and tighten its alliance with the US irreversibly by overcoming the domestic opposition. Japan’s success in this regard will make a significant difference in terms of maintaining the current international order, not just in East Asia but also worldwide.

About The Author

Kubo FumiakiFumiaki Kubo is the President of the National Defence Academy of Japan, as well as Emeritus Professor of the University of Tokyo. He has conducted research on US politics and US-Japan relations at Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, and Georgetown University, and the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. He has written and edited many books, including US-Japan Alliance of Hope: Asia-Pacific Maritime Security (2020, Tokyo).


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The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.