Thursday, October 23, 2014
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Japan’s Russian Dilemma

TOKYO – For Japanese leaders and citizens, President Vladimir Putin’s brutal annexation of Crimea was an unsurprising return to the normal paradigm of Russian history. Indeed, most Japanese regard the move as having been determined by some expansionist gene in Russia’s political DNA, rather than by Putin himself or the specifics of the Ukraine crisis.

Japan is particularly concerned with Russian expansionism, because it is the only G-7 country that currently has a territorial dispute with Russia, which has occupied its Northern Territories since the waning days of World War II. That occupation began between August 28 and September 5, 1945, when the Soviet Union hurriedly nullified the existing Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Treaty and invaded not only Japanese-occupied Manchuria, but also southern Sakhalin Island and the ancient Japanese territories of Etorofu Island, Kunashiri Island, Shikotan Island, and the Habomai Islands.

Concerned that America’s development and use of atomic weapons against Japan would deprive the Soviet Union of any territorial gains in the east, Stalin ordered the Red Army to invade. But Japan, having already endured the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had accepted the Potsdam Declaration on August 14, meaning that the war was already over when the Red Army marched in.

Since then, these islands have been controlled by either the Soviet Union or its successor state, Russia. And, as elsewhere in Russia, their residents have been impoverished by consistently incompetent and corrupt government, whether run by Communists or today’s crony capitalists.

In a strange historical twist, given the Crimean annexation, after the Japanese citizens native to the Northern Territories were killed or expelled, many Ukrainians were brought to the islands during the Soviet years, and still live there. If an independence referendum were to be held on Etorofu Island, where some 60% of the inhabitants have roots in Ukraine, I wonder whether Putin would accept the result as readily as he did the ballot in Crimea, undertaken at the barrel of a gun?

After coming to power at the end of 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had sought to improve relations with Putin in the hope of beginning serious talks on the Northern Territories. But now that Putin has made his project of imperial restoration crystal clear, those hopes are stillborn.

Recognizing this, Abe condemned the annexation of Crimea, calling it “a violation of Ukraine’s integrity and the integrity of its sovereignty and territory.” Abe added that “attempts to change the status quo by force cannot be overlooked,” and that Japan would consider further economic sanctions against Russia in cooperation with the G-7.

Needless to say, these remarks underscored the fact that Japanese territory and territorial waters are being threatened “by force” in the East China Sea by China. The lesson now being drawn is that, where territorial disputes are concerned, Japan must not kowtow to “attempts to change the status quo backed by force.”

China’s response to the crisis in Ukraine was particularly revealing. For three decades, China has proclaimed “non-interference” in the internal affairs of sovereign states as the most important rule governing international relations. But when Putin invaded Ukraine, China showed the hollowness of its adherence to this principle. Instead of condemning Russia for invading and annexing Crimea, it abstained at the United Nations Security Council, and has offered more criticism of Ukraine’s new popular government than it has of Putin’s thuggish behavior.

Every country in Asia is bound to draw only one conclusion from China’s tacit approval of Putin’s Crimean land grab: China, too, thinks that might makes right, and if it believes that it can get away with invading disputed territories, whether in the South China Sea or in the Indian Himalayas, it will do so. As a result, effective deterrence will require Asian countries to strengthen their defenses and unite to demand adherence to international law, so that China understands that any Putin-style land grabs will cost its economy dearly.

In the immediate future, Japan will work with the G-7 to ensure that Putin’s reckless ambitions do not endanger other parts of Ukraine. Already, Japan has decided to provide ¥150 billion ($1.5 billion) in economic aid for Ukraine, the largest pledge by any individual country, including the US, thus far.

Before the Crimea invasion, territorial negotiations between Japan and Russia showed signs of progress. Moreover, several bilateral economic cooperation efforts, such as projects involving liquefied natural gas, were moving forward.

But it is now clear not only that Putin is returning Russia to the stagnation of the late-Soviet era, but also that he subscribes to former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s dictum that “what we have, we hold.” So Putin’s talk about reaching an agreement with Japan on the Northern Territories was likely as mendacious as his claims that Russians in Crimea were in peril, and thus in need of protection by Russian troops.

More important, Japan understands that business as usual with an aggressive Russia that undermines the international order could embolden others closer to home to embrace Putin’s lawless tactics. The days of an inward looking Japan are over. Japan now sees threats elsewhere in the world in the context of its own security, and will react appropriately.

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  1. CommentedLei Cao

    National security is an easy excuse to beef up the tension around the eastern pacific region. While the two biggest countries in this region (China and Japan) both stand up and swing the flag of National Security, I feel less secured.

  2. CommentedAshish Sood

    I am keen to tell that Spiro V does not realise that Crimea has been annexed in sheer manipulation of democracy when Russia is not one and also where people have been misled to believe that Russia is their home and this kind of rejoining will help in restoration of their religious identity.

      CommentedAshish Sood

      Charles: I wrote that comment for Spiro, at first place. Moreover, i see little or no role in this debate about history of Crimea even as that does not mean i disrespect the Crimean sentiment or their pride in their heritage. I saw a grave error committed by Russia that alters geo-political economic and security balance that can have adverse effects in a financially unstable world. My using the phrase, 'mislead' was to show how democratic instrument has been subverted by a thoroughly communist Soviet state of Russian Federation. Perhaps the idea of democracy, open debate, freedom to vote and expression are still unknown in EU but here in India, the subject is valued over and above the state when matters of diplomacy come to forefront. I hope that answers your confusion and silences the intellect that misinterprets the word 'mislead'.

      CommentedCharles XIA

      I am keen to tell that ASHISH SOOD has little to none understanding about the history of Crimea. If you can claim that the Crimeans are "mislead" to believe that Russia is their home then I am sure the Ryukyuans were mislead to believe that Japan is their home as well. Sometimes the hypocrisy shown by the West and wanna-be West Japan is just marvelous.

  3. CommentedYuriy Gorodnichenko

    The failure to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine is going to have global effects
    http://voxukraine.blogspot.com/2014/03/what-is-really-at-stake-in-crimea-by.html
    Who can guarantee that the U.S. is going to defend Japan?

  4. CommentedKungaa Mergen

    And also, ethnic ukrainians in Russia mostly assimilated and associate themselves with Russian. Ah, of course author is from monoethnic Japan and know nothing about living in multinational country and assimilation processes. So why Russian people(not ukrainian, I have a lot of ethnic ukrainian friends and no one of them associate themselves with Ukraine) sould wanna live in country with another languges, where people ate dolphins and whales(thanks to UN, that banned Japanese licences), and with huge gender equivalence, with asian population, where they can not assimilate and feel like in homeland. So, yeah, stupid article.

  5. CommentedKungaa Mergen

    At first - Russia always offered to give back Habomai and Shikotan, but Japanese government always been greedy. Does South Korea offered give back parts of Liancourt Rocks? No. Does Japan offered to give back part of Senkaku to China? No. So why Russia should make negotiations with country which has such selfish government. Japan offered nothing for solving problems. Only "pera-pera-pera, hoporyodo kaise". Actually, only Japan has territorial disputes with all 4(China, Russia, ROK, Taiwan) neighbors. Russia has territorial dispute only with Japan. Why Japan has so much territorial disputes? Because of expansionist nature or DNA (read WWII history). Of course, US occupied Japan and rein in expansionist DNA of japanese people. Japan also recognize the independence of Kosovo, and ignores laws of Serbia, breaks international laws. So what? It seems like that author is just russophobic japanese woman, which doesn't have full view of political situations and take stock Japanese foreign policy. Ah, i forget that there is no japanese foreign policy, only echo of US government policy.

  6. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Ms Yoriko Koike had served as minister of defence in the cabinet of current prime minister Shinzo Abe between July and August 2007. Yet as minister of Okinawa and the Northern Territories in 2004-2006, she had a deep insight in the territorial dispute with Russia over the resource-rich Kurile islands north of Japan's island of Hokkaido. There is to date no peace-treaty, that formally ends the Second World War and settle the status of the four Russian-held islands. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yelzin had held talks with his Japanese counterpart. Then came Vladimir Putin in 2000, and today the two sides still keep on talking.
    Russia is refusing to hand back the Kurile islands and it hasn't forgotten the humiliation suffered in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, which broke out as a result of conflicts in China and Korea. The Japanese besieged the Russian stronghold of Port Arthur, in China and sank several Russian warships. The fleet, steaming all the way from Western Russia, arrived only to find itself destroyed by Admiral Togo at the battle of Tsushima.
    In light of Russia's annexation of Crimea, Ms Koike expresses her concern about "Russia's expansionism". It's quite unlikely that Russia would invade any territory in Asia's Pacific Northwest, a region in which China, Japan and the Soviet Union had jostled for influence for decades. In fact Japan's rise to power had its victory in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese to thank for.
    Ms Koke criticises " China’s response to the crisis in Ukraine", showing "the hollowness of its adherence to this principle" of "non-interference. It is true that China could benefit from the stand-off between Russia and the West. Beijing sees Russia's resurgence an advantage, as it would create a multi-polar world and relieve China's strategic pressure. It also hopes that economic sanctions against Russia will help speed up its negotiations with Moscow on energy co-operation and building a strategic partnership.
    On the other hand China is wary of supporting Putin's annexation of Crimea, as it could be seen as turning a blind eye to separatism. It abstained from voting against Russia in the UN Security Council, yet Vladimir Putin thanked China for its support during his speech after the referendum, in which he defended his move. Indeed he was very isolated and felt compelled to tell the world that he still had support. Despite the unlikelihood that Russian troops will mass troops on Japanese territory, Putin has become an unpredictable figure in a world, that seems no longer be governeed by international law, but by "the barrel of the gun".

  7. CommentedJohn Haskell

    Steps to success in Japanese politics:
    1. Decry Crimea's brutal referendum
    2. Proceed directly to Yasukuni shrine to worship some war criminals.

  8. CommentedVelko Simeonov

    If someone in the japanese foreign service establishment believed that Russia would relinquish peacefully any territory it currently claims he should be fired immidietely for gross incompetence.

  9. CommentedSpiro V

    Government debt of Japan is approximately 200% of its GDP. Do Japanese taxpayers mind throwing away another 150000000000 yen at the basket case that is todays Ukraine?

  10. CommentedSpiro V

    If the was a willingness of the majority of people in Crimea to rejoin Russia, why would someone call it 'brutal'?

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