Japan sanctions Russia as well as G-7 countries after years of trying to forge closer ties

Japan was more decisive in joining in condemnation of the Kremlin by G-7 nations than in 2014, when then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reluctantly joined Western allies in imposing token sanctions in Moscow as part of its rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But it remains to be seen whether Japan’s actions this time will match its harsh rhetoric.

“On the one hand, Japan really follows the other six G-7 countries,” said Atsuko Higashino, an expert in European politics at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki. “At the same time, the actions of the Japanese government are really slow and small, and try to limit influence as much as possible.”

These actions include economic sanctions unveiled on Wednesday – before Russia’s attack – which included suspending visa issuance and freezing the assets of individuals linked to the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, banning imports and exports for both regions and the ban on the sale of sovereign debt in Japan.

These sanctions, again, appear to be largely symbolic. Several analysts have struggled to identify if, or how much, Russian debt is issued in Japan. The visa ban for breakaway regions is largely moot as Japan does not issue visas to foreigners during its coronavirus border lockdown.

Japan also agreed to send excess liquefied natural gas reserves to European countries that depend on Russia for supplies and pledged at least $100 million in emergency loans to Ukraine to show support.

After the announcement of the sanctions, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country expects “stronger reaction” and “stronger action” from Japan.

Japan is now considering further sanctions, including export bans on semiconductors and other high-tech products to Russia, Japanese media outlet NHK reported on Thursday. Such an escalation in sanctions, along the lines of the United States and other Western countries, would mark an important step for Japan.

“If the situation escalates further, we should quickly consider further measures,” Kishida told Japan’s parliament on Thursday. “Japan’s cooperation with the US, EU and other European countries is very important in demonstrating the international community’s strong will to unite against Russia.”

Japan’s desire to demonstrate its ability to work alongside its Western allies on the Ukraine crisis is tied to its concerns about China’s aggression in the region.

Leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have warned that while Japan’s response is lackluster, it cannot expect European allies to support them in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Conservative leaders have called on Kishida to show that Japan will not tolerate regional actors using force to change the territorial status quo – especially in the case of an increasingly aggressive China.

“In the Asian region, China threatens the territory and territorial waters of other countries. And China is now watching how other countries react to Russia,” the editorial board of the conservative newspaper Sankei Shimbun wrote last month. “We hope Prime Minister Kishida will demonstrate Japan’s firm position that it will not allow the status quo to be changed by force.”

Japan has long feared taking steps that would bring Russia closer to China and has sought to make room for negotiations with Moscow over a long-running territorial dispute over a small chain of islands off northern Hokkaido. from Japan.

Japan also depends on Russia for its energy imports. In 2020, 8.2% of Japan’s LNG imports and 14.5% of coal imports came from Russia, Nikkei Asia reported. Japan said this week it has about 240 days worth of oil reserves and does not fear the crisis will immediately disrupt its energy supply.

“Japan is already doing a lot more than it did in 2014,” said Sheila Smith, an expert on foreign policy and Japanese politics at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Abe’s overtures to Putin at the time really hampered a strong Japanese performance in the G-7.”

This time, Japan will be asked to invest a lot more in resisting Russian aggression, Smith said. Kishida brings considerable experience of the intricacies of balancing Japan-Russia relations, as a longtime foreign minister under Abe, she said.

“He was sort of the balance with Abe. When Abe was firmly focused on Putin, Kishida was the guy who showed up at the G-7, Kishida was the guy who worked on the channels of, what can we do, what can’t we do,” she said.

Some analysts say Japan needs to step up its efforts. Higashino, the European policy expert, said Japan’s diplomacy on the matter was “pathetic”. For example, earlier this month Japanese lawmakers passed a resolution expressing solidarity with Ukraine but did not directly name Russia.

In a joint statement, G-7 leaders vowed that Russia would face ‘massive consequences’ if it invaded – but Japan’s action does not hold up, said James Brown, an expert on Russian relations -Japanese at the Temple University campus in Tokyo. . Brown said Japan’s actions so far seemed quick and decisive only because the bar was set so low in 2014.

“The territorial dispute, these talks, are already going nowhere. China and Russia are already incredibly close partners. The attempt at conciliation with Russia did not work. I don’t think Japan has much to lose by taking a tougher stance,” Brown said.

But some experts say Japan’s approach is in line with that of its allies in gradually ramping up sanctions, noting that Russia’s actions mark the start of the conflict.

“We need collective action to deter future Russian aggression,” said Kunihiko Miyake, chairman of the Tokyo Foreign Policy Institute think tank and director of research at the Canon Institute for Global Studies.

“So whether Japan’s measures are sufficient or not is not a good question. Whether we continue to work with other like-minded nations to form concerted collective action or behavior against Russia is something we could ask for, and I think Japan is moving in that direction,” he said. said Miyake.

Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.

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