Japan's Special Defense Forces could become more offensive with a change of the constitution. Image: Facebook

While a hot war rages on Russia’s western border, the temperature is falling in a long-running cold war on its eastern frontier.

Japan-Russian relations, long prickly, have been exacerbated since February after Moscow’s forces launched a multi-pronged assault on Ukraine.

Japan, closely allied to the United States and in synch with the wider West, has raised its diplomatic voice, deployed financial aid to Ukraine and applied sanctions against Russian individuals and companies, while capping new Japanese investments in Russia.

While Moscow reserves most of its ire for Western countries sending military equipment to Ukraine, it has added Japan to its official list of “unfriendly nations.”

A new chill is also evident in relations covering the problematic Kuril Islands/Northern Territories, a source of animosity since 1945. Russia has halted talks and launched military drills around the contested isles.

The recent plunge in relations, while a sudden acceleration, is part of a trend visible in Moscow-Tokyo relations since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had struck up a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, left office in 2020.

Yet Japan, while clearly siding with the West, has held its fire more than many other nations, particularly Anglosphere ones.

Trammeled by its pacifist constitution, Tokyo is not sending arms to Ukraine. And although Japan has announced sanctions, it is not halting imports of Russian oil or gas.

Even though Western energy majors have pulled out of projects in the Russian Far East, Tokyo has made clear that its huge Mitsui-Mitsubishi investment in Russia’s Sakhalin-2 energy project will keep pumping.

This points to the reactive, rather than proactive, nature of Japanese foreign policy.

“Japan’s attitude is ‘wait and see.’ This is a classic tug of war between the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Tosh Minohara, a professor of Japanese Diplomacy at the Graduate School of Law and Politics, Kobe University, told Asia Times.

“I think Japan is waiting to see what Europe does, especially Germany.”

That points to another conundrum. If Germany eventually does make the jump – a very, very big jump – away from Russian energy, and Japan feels compelled by its global democratic partners to follow suit, the winner will likely be a commercial and geopolitical rival: China.

“It is apparent to Japan that, if Japan leaves, China will move in and fill the void,” Minohara said.

The rough new waves rolling through global geopolitics may well thrust Japan further into America’s arms, Minohara suggested.

But there are other regional signals flashing, including indications of increasing Russian military moves in the Far East, and of unofficial but growing Beijing-Moscow military cooperation. These, allied to movements in both the Diet and in public opinion, are adding to the already existing pressures on Japanese officialdom to upgrade its own defenses.

Map: New Pakistan TV / Screengrab

Last week, Tokyo’s Foreign Ministry published its diplomatic “blue book” for 2022, which says that a group of islands north of Hokkaido, seized by Soviet troops at the very end of World War II, are an inherent part of Japanese territory that was “illegally occupied by Russia.”

That marks a return to the language previously used in 2011, before then-premier Shinzo Abe sought to cool the dispute over the Kurils/Northern Territories, which has been simmering between Moscow and Tokyo since 1945.

The publication further ramped up the rhetoric, calling the Russian invasion of Ukraine “an outrage that undermines the foundation of the international order not only in Europe but also in Asia.”

In a prior diplomatic step taken on April 8, Japan expelled a group of Russian diplomats. And on March 23, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Japanese Diet.

Tokyo has deployed a range of goods to Ukraine, including foodstuffs, medicines, helmets, hazmat suits, bulletproof vests and commercial drones. It has also promised US$2.6 million to Kiev to buy medical aid, and is providing about $300 million in loans.

The latter, announced by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, is a major increase over an earlier commitment of $100 million.

Japan’s pacifist constitution prohibits the deployment of the kind of weaponry that Western countries are sending. Still, Tokyo has opened fire with a range of sanctions against Russia.

On March 15, Japan announced it was joining Western partners in banning the export of key goods, including semiconductors, machine tools and raw materials. The ban applies to about 270 items.

Then, on April 12, the cabinet approved freezing the assets of 398 Russians, including President Vladimir Putin’s two daughters, as well as 28 organizations including Russia’s leading bank, Sherbank.

Japanese individuals and companies were also prohibited from making any new investments in Russia. 

On April 14, the Diet passed bills that strip Russia of its “most favored nation” trade status. That will raise tariff rates on Russian imports via a revision to customs laws, and will prevent transactions in cryptocurrencies, which could provide a way for Russian businesses to swerve around their exclusion from the SWIFT global financial transaction system.  

The Diet’s steps last month reportedly cleared the path for tougher sanctions by the end of the current parliamentary session in June.

A pro-Russian soldier standing near a burnt out building in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, April 10, 2022. Image: Screengrab / BBC

While the ban on key material exports was enacted in March, it does not include the products that make up the majority of Japan’s exports to Russia. Those are cars and auto components, which are about half, while construction and mining account for about 6.7%, Bloomberg noted.

Russian shipments to Japan made up less than 2% of the island nation’s imports in 2021. Of them, approximately 60% were energy-related.

And when it comes to energy, there has been some movement.

Kishida declared on April 8 that Russia’s coal imports would be curtailed and Japan will “gradually cut imports by securing alternative sources swiftly.”

There is no timetable for the both gradual and swift step. According to Japanese news reports, authorities were assessing future electricity demand, with Kyodo News anticipating Australia would make up the shortfall.

Russian coal makes up 13% of Japan’s coal used for power generation and 8% of its coking coal, used for steel making and other industrial processes.

But the heavy reliance multiple developed nations have on Russian energy supplies remains an Achilles heel of the West’s sanctions regime.

Japan is no exception. Neither Russian crude oil nor LNG are subject to the tariffs announced last month. Japan, a net energy importer, receives about 9% of its gas from Russia.

And industrial cooperation in the sector will continue. Japanese players Mitsubishi and Matsui are, along with Russia’s Gazprom, key partners in the huge Sakhalin-2 project in the Russian Far East.

The other overseas partner in Sakhalin-2, Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell, announced its pullout at the end February, citing the war in Ukraine. US-based Exxon Mobil announced it would pull out of Sakhalin-1 for the same reason.

However, Japan’s Trade and Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda said Japan would not withdraw from Sakhalin-2 as it was not a new investment and was vital to Japan’s energy security.

Shell held a 27.5% stake in the project, while Mitsui and Mitsubishi held 12.5% and 10%, respectively, according to Japanese media.

Arguably, it is also a diplomatic asset. As well as generating energy for Japan, the project was seen as an economic component of improved ties with Russia that could help overcome the Kuril/Northern territories dispute.

Aerial view of the Sakhalin-2 project. Image: Shell Website

A reservoir of ill will

That dispute is the tip of an iceberg. Acrimonious – indeed, lethal – relations between the two Northeast Asian powers date back for more than a century.

Czarist Russians reached the northern Pacific in the 17th century and established an official administrative presence in 1856 at Khabarovsk. The Meiji Era, the period of fast-track Japanese modernization and globalization, started in 1868.

Moscow’s eastward expansionism, combined with Tokyo’s unprecedented rise, put the two powers on a collision course.

In 1904-1905, to the world’s astonishment, Japan emerged victorious in the Russo-Japanese War, the first time an Eastern nation had defeated a Western one in modern history. That granted Japan not only plaudits, but uncontested control of the strategic Korean peninsula, which it colonized in 1910.

In 1918, Tokyo dispatched troops to fight alongside white forces during the Russian Civil War. In 1931, it used Korea as a balcony to advance into Manchuria, and subsequently China. However, its move into Mongolia was halted at the bloody battle of Khalkin Gol/Nomhohan in 1939 by Soviet troops.

Japan’s defeat in the four-month campaign, with the loss of about 18,000 troops, had seismic geopolitical results. A Soviet-Japanese Neutrality pact was signed in 1941, and a militaristic Tokyo, instead of confronting Soviet communism, chose a “southern strategy” of confronting European and US colonial powers in Southeast Asia.

That led Japan into battle against the Western Allies with Nazi Germany.

After Berlin’s defeat, and at the request of the Allies, then preparing for what was expected to be an apocalyptic assault on the Japanese home islands, Moscow joined the fight against Japan. 

In August 1945, the last month of the struggle, massed Soviet forces invaded Japan-controlled Manchuria, northern Japanese territories and the Korean Peninsula.

China would regain control of Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula would be split into two states. However, the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands, which lie between Japan’s Hokkaido and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, remained in Moscow’s grip.

The dispute has dragged on into the 21st century, marked by angry diplomacy, fishing disputes and aerial intrusions.

Although Abe undertook extensive one-on-one talks with Putin, the dispute remained unresolved. No peace treaty ending World War II between Moscow and Tokyo has yet been signed.

“Abe didn’t achieve much on territorial disputes,” Haruko Satoh, an international relations expert at the Osaka School of International Public Policy, told Asia Times. ”Despite his seemingly good relations with Putin.”

Even so, since Abe left office in 2020, relations have chilled further.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. Photo: AFP / Alexander Vilf / Sputnik

In 2021, Russia deployed an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system in the Kurils, beefing up short-range systems already in place.

On March 26, after its February attack on Ukraine, Russia held military drills with 3,000 personnel on the islands, the scenario being defense against an enemy landing.

Japanese media reported that the drills took place days after Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced it was suspending territorial talks with Japan in protest against its sanctions.

In April, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force and the US Navy held a series of far-ranging joint drills in the East China Sea, the Philippine Sea and the Sea of Japan headed by the US carrier Abraham Lincoln. 

While the Quad partners routinely hold such drills, widely considered to be aimed at Beijing, this time they sparked a response from Moscow.

On April 14, TASS reported that two submarines from Russia’s Vladivostok-based Pacific Fleet test-fired Kalibr cruise missiles from submerged postures in the Sea of Japan. “Over 15 ships and auxiliary vessels of the Pacific Fleet, and also naval aviation aircraft, provided support” for the drill, TASS said.

It makes sense for Russia.

“Though the efficacy of the Russian Far Eastern fleet may be in question, it is still a force to be reckoned with,” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based security consultant. “A ‘real’ military power has to be able to fight on two fronts, so putting pressure on the Pacific front – and Russia wants to demonstrate it is a Pacific power – is probably a calculation for Putin, pushing back against US and allies in that part of the world.”

Tokyo’s top brass has been largely focused on a rising China in the Senkaku/Diaoyus, the South China Sea and more recently around Taiwan. They have also been spooked by North Korean missile and nuclear tests.

Now, they must add Russian belligerence and a growing Chinese-Russian military partnership to their list.

“Russia is annoyed by the theater missile defenses of the US and its allies – Japan being one of them – so China and Russia probably very much see eye to eye on countering a theater missile defense net in Indo-Pacific,” Neill said.

There is more. China and Russia have a low-profile but rising partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

Chinese forces joined Russia’s huge Vostok 2018 military drills, and since then, Chinese and Russian warplanes have jointly probed South Korean and Japanese air space. Assets from both fleets also discretely shadow the US RIMPAC international naval exercises.

Russian and Chinese soldiers take aim in a 2018 joint military exercise. Image: Twitter

All this is sparking a renewed focus on defense in both the Japanese polity and the public.

Last week, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party asked Kishida to consider doubling Japan’s defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP). That was part of a set of proposals that also included upgrading the ability of the Self Defense Force to take out distant enemy weapons systems and to update the National Security Strategy.  

Meanwhile, a poll published by Kyodo News on Monday (May 2) found that a slender majority of Japanese – 50% versus 48% – are now in favor of revising their pacifist constitution.

The multiple security jitters, including the Ukraine invasion, may further push Japan into the arms of its alliance partner, reckons one expert.

“Japan has an alliance with the US, and an alliance is a mutual thing,” said Minohara. “I think the global situation is forcing Japan to realize that alliances matter.”

This may lead to more US assertiveness and related movement by a customarily reluctant Japan. “How it plays out is when the US stomps its foot and says, ‘Get your act together!’” said Minohara. “That is when Japan moves.”