Host: The Stimson Center
Dr. Yoko Hirose, Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University
It is no secret that the balance of power is quickly changing in Asia. Over the past decade, China, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and other Southeast Asian countries have experienced strong economic growth, while old regional powers like Russia have seen their influence diminish. Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, Japan – the premier U.S. ally in the region – would fall into this latter category. In recent years, in addition to managing an aging and declining population, Japan’s economy has been shrinking, it has experienced heightened tensions with both China and the ROK, and has also been forced to rethink its energy sector following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011.
In order to tackle these challenges and reassert Japan’s power in the region, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been working to expand diplomatic ties throughout the region, with Russia being one of his key targets for partnership. Since taking office in 2012, PM Abe has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin five times. The focus of these meetings were, according to Dr. Hirose, to build trust and confidence between the two leaders and kick-start a process that would eventually settle a long-standing territorial dispute involving four islands, dubbed the “Northern Territory” by Japan, which are currently occupied by Russia. It was Abe’s hope that, by strengthening diplomatic and economic ties with Putin and Russia, the islands would be re-administered to Japan as a token of good will and confidence building.
As Dr. Hirose explained, such a move would have significant domestic, regional, and economic implications. Domestically, it would strengthen Abe’s support at a time when he is struggling to reinforce the country’s economy. Regionally, a stronger partnership with Russia would bolster Japan as it endures heightened tensions with the ROK and China, while also giving Japan greater representation with North Korea – with which Japan still has unresolved issues regarding the DPRK abducting its citizens. It would also set a strong precedent for Japan’s other territorial disputes – namely with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
However, according to Dr. Hirose, now that Japan’s Western partners – notably its U.S. ally – are struggling with Russia to end the conflict in Ukraine, years of Japanese diplomacy and policy are being threatened; for a country that notably has very little significance to Japan. Thus far, Japan has slowly and begrudgingly moved in line with the U.S. and enacted some sanctions against Russia. On March 18, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Japan froze negotiations on a new investment agreement – which Dr. Hirose explained could have brought Japan a necessary new source of energy – in addition to freezing an outer space cooperation agreement and an agreement for the “prevention of dangerous military activities.” This first round of sanctions was met with little condemnation from Russia. However, as the conflict in Ukraine has intensified and been marred by the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Japan has broadened its list of sanctions, suspending visas and freezing funds of individuals thought to be influencing Russian policy and also freezing all funds dedicated to new projects in Russia. These later sanctions have invoked a Russian response, banning some Japanese citizens form entering Russia while also accusing Japan of being coerced by foreign powers and calling into question Japan’s willingness to negotiate over the Northern Territories.
As of now, Dr. Hirose does not believe that the tensions between Russia and Japan are irreversible; she believes that Russia realizes that Japan is being pushed into action largely due to its alliance with the U.S. It is for that reason that Russia has not enforced counter sanctions against Japan to the same degree it has against the EU and U.S. She believes that, like Japan, Russia is also wary of China’s growing strength and – in light of its damaged European relations – Russia is in need of new, Asian, partners. Despite Japan’s shrinking economy, it is still the third largest economy in the world and is in need of new sources of energy, which Russia has in abundance. Both countries would benefit from improved ties. However, in order to achieve its needs Japan will need to tread carefully and strike a delicate balance between its domestic, regional, and global priorities.