Voices from Asia

Searching for Japan’s Role in the World Amid the Russia-Ukraine War

The G7 Hiroshima Summit concluded on May 21 with a communiqué reiterating continued support for Ukraine in face of Russia’s illegal war of aggression. Although Japan was perceived at the onset of the war as reluctant to go beyond condemning Russia at the expense of its own interests, it has since become one of the leading countries taking action during the war.

Instytut Boyma 16.06.2023

The G7 Hiroshima Summit concluded on May 21 with a communiqué reiterating continued support for Ukraine in face of Russia’s illegal war of aggression (MOFA, 2023a). Although Japan was perceived at the onset of the war as reluctant to go beyond condemning Russia at the expense of its own interests, it has since become one of the leading countries taking action during the war (Nikkei, 2022).

As the country holding the G7 Presidency, Tokyo has led calls for Russia to withdraw its troops entirely from Ukraine, impose tough sanctions against Russia, and provide budget support for Ukraine’s reconstruction (MOFA, 2023b). This seeming shift in approach stems from two key understandings — that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine constitutes a serious challenge to the international order based on the rule of law, and that what is happening in Europe may eventually become a reality in the Indo-Pacific region.

In other words, Japan has proactively led the international community in supporting Ukraine because it senses that standing idle during this European conflict does not serve its national interests.

Challenges to the International Order

First and foremost, challenges to the existing international order threaten to destabilize the world in which Japan was able to secure peace and prosperity. The post-war liberal international order propelled Japan to its position as the world’s third largest economy and only Asian G7 member.

Recent developments threaten to undo this. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has stated that the world faces a “historic turning point” (Prime Minister’s Office of Japan, 2023a). The 2022 Diplomatic Bluebook points out that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has become a symbol of the “end of the post-Cold War era,” in which authoritarian countries are challenging the existing international order based on the rule of law (MOFA, 2023c). In Europe, Russia poses a threat through its illegal war against Ukraine, another sovereign state. In Asia, China’s military assertiveness and economic heft has left countries concerned about its ambitions to reshape the existing regional and international order in its favor.

In this international context, Kishida has stressed that unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force are unacceptable anywhere in the world and that it is important to maintain a free and open international order based on the rule of law (MOFA, 2023d). The latter was one of two key themes Tokyo pushed forth during the G7 Hiroshima Summit in May. Japan has also championed the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) as a grand vision for a desirable international order. The prime minister stated in a speech in March unveiling the new FOIP plan that the concept should be the guiding perspective to avoid the international community from drifting toward division and confrontation (MOFA, 2023e). He added that defending peace is of utmost importance and that countries in the world should be able to enjoy freedom free from coercion.

The situation Ukraine faces today is incompatible with this worldview. Tokyo therefore is inclined to support Ukraine, with whom it also shares a “special global partnership” grounded in fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for international law and human rights — core tenets of the existing international order (MOFA, 2023f).

“Support Unique to Japan”

There are a few reasons why Tokyo may not have been as proactive about supporting Ukraine at the onset of the war. First, Japan has long sought to conclude a peace treaty with Russia. Although the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration ended the state of war and restored diplomatic ties, it failed to resolve territorial issues regarding attribution of the Northern Territories, which remain an issue today (MOFA, n.d.).

The Abe administration in particular put in strenuous efforts to engage Russia and encourage the conclusion of a peace treaty. During his premiership, Japan established a new ministerial position for economic cooperation with Russia and announced the eight-point cooperation plan to deepen economic cooperation, spending close to ¥20 billion (around $140 million) over six years (including years after Abe stepped down; 2016-2022) (Reuters, 2016; MOFA, 2016; Tokyo Shimbun, 2022).

Second, energy has been a headache for resource-scarce Japan. As of 2021, Japan’s dependence on Russian energy was at 11 percent for coal, 9 percent for LNG, and 4 percent for oil (Nikkei, 2023a). Russia constitutes a valuable alternative energy source to the Middle East, which accounts for 80 percent of imported oil (oil accounts for 40 percent of primary energy supply) (FEPC, n.d.). Due to this, Tokyo has been unable to completely cut off Russian energy even amidst the war. The Government of Japan (GOJ) has allowed a Japanese consortium to retain a stake in Sakhalin-1 and -2 in a bid to reduce dependence on the Middle East (The Japan Times, 2022).

There was a clear shift in policy as it became evident that this would be a prolonged war and that this would be the focus of the G7 Presidency under Japan. First, the prime minister’s rhetoric on the war evolved from “serious concern” at the onset to strongly criticizing Russia’s aggression and the “reckless act in clear violation of international law” (Prime Minister’s Office of Japan, 2022a; 2022b). Statements also began to include language that stressed Russia’s nuclear threat was “absolutely unacceptable” especially given Japan is the only country to have ever suffered atomic bombings during war (MOFA, 2023g).

Second, the GOJ began imposing sanctions along with the rest of the G7. To date, Japan has suspended issuance of visas (MOFA, 2022a); implemented asset freezes on 919 Russian individuals and organizations including state banks, 327 individuals and organizations considered to be involved in the annexation of Crimea and incorporation of Eastern Ukraine (since 2016), and 35 individuals and organizations from Belarus (MOF, 2023a; 2023b; 2022); and restricted financial transactions and exports to specific entities and of specific items contributing to Russian industrial capacities including trucks and airplane engines (METI, 2023). It has also imposed export restrictions on dual-use technologies including semiconductors and chemicals convertible to weapons.

In addition, Japan has taken actions such as blocking Russian access to the SWIFT international payment system to make it difficult for Russian companies to do business and imposing a $60 per barrel price cap on seaborne oil to prevent Russia from making money on oil exports (although an exception was made for above-cap purchases) (Reuters, 2022; MOFA, 2022b; Landers, 2023). Separate price ceilings for petroleum and diesel fuel/kerosene products went into effect in February 2023 (MOFA, 2023h). As G7 President, Japan also led the establishment of the Enforcement Coordination Mechanism to address sanctions evasion and circumvention (MOFA, 2023i). One report found that Russia had circumvented sanctions and imported close to $740 million worth of semiconductors primarily through China and Hong Kong (Nikkei, 2023b). The G7 has since pledged to clamp down on third-parties aiding Russia’s attempts to circumvent sanctions (MOFA, 2023b).

Third, Japan began supporting Ukraine more robustly. A recent study by the German think tank Kiel Institute for the World Economy found that, since the start of the war, Japan has committed the fourth most aid — financial, humanitarian, and military — to Ukraine (excluding the European Union) (Kiel, 2023). At the G7 level, Japan announced in February that the members would be increasing their contributions in 2023 to $39 billion and that Japan would be providing $7.1 billion (MOFA, 2023i). It also established the Multi-agency Donor Coordination Platform in January to support Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction and the G7+ Energy Sector Support grouping to maintain and restore Ukraine’s energy infrastructure (MOFA, 2023j; 2023k).

On the bilateral front, Kishida made a historic visit to Ukraine in March amidst the war and upgraded Japan-Ukraine relations to the “special global partnership” (MOFA, 2023l). Although he was the last G7 leader to visit Ukraine due to security concerns (stemming from a backward rule in Japan’s parliament requiring prime ministers to disclose foreign visits ahead of time), it nonetheless symbolized the heightened importance Tokyo was placing on supporting Ukraine (Nikkei, 2023c).

Given the constraints placed on Japan in terms of weapons procurement, support has been primarily focused on monetary, technical, and non-lethal equipment provisions. Monetary aid can be categorized as grants and loans for economic recovery and emergency provisions. The most notable include $400 million for reconstruction and $70 million grant for the restoration of energy infrastructure, as well as $5 million in agricultural production assistance and $2.57 million for winterization assistance in the electric power sector (MOFA, 2023m; 2023n; 2023o; 2023p).

Technical and other material assistance primarily centered on helping Ukrainian evacuees settle in Japan and providing expert support for necessary reconstruction efforts. For instance, as of May 31, Japan has accepted 2,444 Ukrainian evacuees to Japan (ISA, 2023a). It also passed legislation this month to establish quasi-refugee status for Ukrainians and others evacuating from conflict zones that do not fall under the narrow definition of refugees in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention (Kyodo, 2023; UN, n.d.). This will pave the way for more long-term residence in Japan (ISA, 2023b). Japan has also provided minesweeping training for the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, critical to ensuring the safe removal of Russian-placed mines that have covered area nearly twice the size of Austria (Duzor, 2023). In January, Tokyo facilitated training through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Cambodia by local authorities trained by the Japanese in using the latest minesweeping technology (JICA, 2023).

In May, Kishida instructed his Cabinet to consider ways “unique to Japan” in which to promote public-private investment and synergize aid and Official Development Assistance (ODA) use to support Ukraine (MOFA, 2023q). This suggests a shift away from simply providing provisions — including bulletproof vests, helmets, tents, cameras, medical supplies, emergency rations, and generators — toward long-term support (MOFA, 2023r).

“East Asia Could Be the Next Ukraine”

Compared to robust economic and emergency assistance, Japan’s defense contributions paint an entirely different picture. The extent to which Japan has gone is to provide non-lethal equipment including small drones and emergency rations (MOD, 2023a). In March, Japan did provide $30 million to NATO’s CAP Trust Fund, which included the provision of non-lethal equipment (MOFA, 2023m). However, it pales in comparison to other G7 countries. For example, the United States has provided $26.7 billion since the start of the war, including munitions for surface-to-air missile systems, tanks, and air defense systems (DOD, 2023). The EU has provided $16 billion such as through the European Peace Facility (European Council, 2023); individual countries like Germany and the United Kingdom have also provided missiles, drones, and tanks (The Federal Government of Germany, 2023; GOV.UK, 2023).

Japan faces unique, self-imposed constraints on defense exports in the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology (MOFA, 2014). Replacing the “Three Principles of Arms Exports” that had been followed for nearly half a century, the new principles announced in 2014 imposed bans on transfers to certain countries, including those involved in conflicts; limited transfers to cases promoting international peace and cooperation or Japan’s security; and ensured appropriate oversight with respect to unintended use and transfers to third countries (Sato, 2014). In March 2022, the GOJ made the unprecedented decision to revise the implementation guidelines — providing details on what was permissible and the applicable oversight procedures — to permit the transfer of non-lethal equipment like bulletproof vests to Ukraine, a country involved in a conflict (NHK, 2022; METI, 2021; MOD, 2022). Since then, Japan has been able to provide non-lethal equipment, including the recent provision of two half-ton JSDF trucks (first of one hundred trucks) (MOD, 2023b).

What prompted Tokyo to increase its defense contributions to a level never seen before? It is hard to believe Japan is supporting Ukraine simply out of altruistic motivations based on a desire to help a friend. The strategic motivation here is that standing by does no good — Japan must make contributions to receive help from others when a contingency occurs in the Indo-Pacific region. For Japan, the paramount challenge is China, which Tokyo characterizes in its 2022 National Security Strategy as an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge to itself and the international community (CAS, 2022). Prime Minister Kishida has hinted at the China threat too, warning that “Ukraine may be the East Asia of tomorrow” (Prime Minister’s Office of Japan, 2023b).

While it would be illogical to draw direct parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan, one can easily surmise that Beijing is watching closely to see how the United States and the rest of the world respond to an egregious case of aggression by a sovereign state against another (Templeman, 2022). Concerns for such aggression are shared across continents, so much so that Japan and NATO have noted that “the security of the Euro-Atlantic and of the Indo-Pacific is closely connected” (MOFA, 2023s).

Given high-level U.S. Military assessments on the timetable Beijing is assumed to be on (as early as 2027 and as late as the end of the decade) for a Taiwan invasion and the fact that Japan realizes the existing Japan-U.S. alliance alone cannot respond to China’s increasing presence in the region, Tokyo has sought to expand its security network of like-minded partners to include European countries (LaGrone, 2021; Shelbourne, 2021). Many of these partners are supporting Ukraine while also enhancing their presence in the Indo-Pacific region. For instance, Japan and the United Kingdom signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement to streamline defense engagements in each other’s countries (MOFA, 2023t). Japan has also increased military exercises and convened “2+2” security consultations with France and Germany, signifying growing Japan-Europe cooperation (Hornung, 2020; MOFA, 2023u; 2021). Finally, NATO is looking to establish a liaison office in Tokyo next year and update their Individually Tailored Partnership Program, symbolizing the importance of Japan as a partner and the increasing linkage between Asian and European concerns (Moriyasu and Tsuji, 2023). A caveat is that Asian and European interests do not always align, as was indicated by France’s hesitation to accept NATO’s liaison office plan (Fraser, 2023; The Japan Times, 2023).

Amid these developments, some argue that Japan must make meaningful defense contributions to Ukraine if it is to expect reciprocal treatment once a contingency in Japan’s neighborhood threatens its security (Itoh, 2023; Nikkei, 2023d). They point out that Japan is likely to run out of ammunition and other provisions once a contingency arises in Asia (Taiwan, to be exact). The ruling LDP-Komeito coalition has held working level discussions since April to consider revising the operational guidelines for the three principles on defense exports, but strong resistance remains regarding the provision of lethal weapons to countries like Ukraine (Matsumoto, 2023). Some proposals being floated include forgoing case-by-case approval of exports co-developed with other countries that the others want to provide to third countries, as well as approving the export of lethal weapons to countries facing invasions in violation of international law (Nikkei, 2023e). So far, opinion polls suggest that the Japanese people have not warmed to the idea, with 76 percent opposing the provision of weapons (Nikkei, 2023f).

Considering the constraints placed on the JSDF over combat, it is understandable that there are reservations about allowing Japan to contribute to armed conflict, which is inherently against the peace-loving nature of the country. However, it would be a testament to Prime Minister Kishida’s forward-leaning security policy and Japan’s understanding of the changing nature of the international order to move toward a controlled regime of weapons exports. Whether Tokyo can get there within the next months is up in the air (Mainichi Shimbun, 2023).

It has, for instance, made some progress on defense export rules, reportedly moving to add land mine removal (possibly Ukraine) and education and training to acceptable equipment exports (Tajima and Uechi, 2023). For now, the GOJ will focus on what it can do — including hosting an international conference on Ukraine’s reconstruction; providing $5 million in emergency humanitarian assistance after the collapse of the Nova Kakhova dam caused severe damage; and potentially supplying 155-millimeter artillery shells to the United States to bolster inventory for Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia (Yomiuri, 2023; MOFA, 2023v; Gale, 2023).

Japan will continue to be innovative and lead international efforts to support Ukraine despite structural limitations to its support in certain areas. These untapped areas may gradually become areas in which Japan can contribute given the benefits for its own national security and promotion of its role in the world to maintain and strengthen the existing international order.



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Rintaro Nishimura

Rintaro Nishimura is an analyst with the Japan practice at The Asia Group and a first-year graduate student in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. A native of Tokyo, Japan, his articles have appeared in the Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs, The Diplomat, Tokyo Review, and Asia Tech Observer. His current research interests are focused on Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy and the geoeconomics of the region. He can be found on Twitter (@RinNishimura) and http://rintaronishimura.com

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