Russia-Ukraine Crisis and Japan’s Response
Prof Rajaram Panda

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special military operation, seen as an invasion by the world, is an unprecedented event that has shaken the world. Though geopolitical and strategic considerations drove Putin to take this measure, his actions have evoked widespread condemnation, including that in the UNSC, UN General Assembly and the UNHRC. Right or wrong, India abstained from all these meetings from voting.

The condemnation move has been led by the US and the European Union. America’s allies such as Japan and Australia too joined in support of the US stand. A series of sanctions have been imposed as punishment targeting banks, oil refineries and military exports. This commentary focuses on Japan’s response to the crisis and the impact of the development on Japan’s thinking domestically keeping in view of its future security needs.

As an ally of the US bound by treaty obligations and backed by its professed pacifism since World War II enshrined by the peace clause in Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan spontaneously joined cause with the US and voted in the global forums condemning Russia’s unprovoked aggression on Ukraine. Like the US and the West, Japan too imposed sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida terming Moscow’s move an “unacceptable violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and international law”. The ambit of the sanctions covered Japan prohibiting the issuance of Russian bonds in Japan and freezing the assets of certain Russian individuals as well as restricting travel to Japan. Japan argued that Russia immediately stop its aggression and return to diplomatic discussions.

Japan’s Economic Stakes in Russia

Japan has the festering territorial disputes over the Northern Islands (Kurile Islands chain) north of Hokkaido and this has led to the troubled relationship since the end of World War II. Japanese firms started mulling over exiting from Russia as sanctions started biting. The Japanese move came after rapid exit of Western companies from Russian ventures in response to the military invasion of Ukraine.[1] Earlier Shell Plc of Britain announced that it was pulling out of energy enterprises in Russia, including the Sakhalin II liquefied natural gas project. Japan is an energy deficient country and depends on imports for bulk of its energy needs. Japan decided to go ahead with the European nations and the US. Though two Japanese trading companies, Mitsui & Co. and Mitsubishi Co. have stakes in the Sakhalin II project, which is a major source of LNG for Japan, the companies decided to cooperate with the international community, including Group of Seven nations, from the standpoint of energy security. ExxonMobil of the US also announced on 1 March it was pulling out of the Sakhalin I project in Russia.

Two leading Japanese trading houses Itochu Corp., Marubeni Corp., and government affiliated oil companies had set up the Sakhalin Oil and Gas Development Co. (SODECO). In total, Japan holds a 30 per cent stake in Sakhalin I. Japan’s automobile industry too has a strong presence in Russia. Mitsubishi Motor Corp. has a plant in western Russia through a joint venture with European automaker Stellantis. Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. too have plants in Russia that are currently operating. These companies have started facing difficulties in shipping parts from Japan and Thailand to the Russian facility and considering if they shall continue operations or pull out stakes. Mitsubishi manufactured around 21,000 vehicles in 2021 in the Russian facility and this could be dented because of problems on the availability of parts.

As economic sanctions imposed by the West excluded major Russian banks from the international settlement network known as SWIFT, Japanese companies that sell products in Russia would now face the problem of receiving payment. There are other Japanese companies engaged in other business activities in Russia and their interests would too are heavily affected. For example, Komatsu Ltd., construction machinery manufacturer accounted for 10 per cent of annual sales of its products to the former Soviet Union region. That could be hit now. As fallout of the worsening situation, Japanese companies engaged in corporate social responsibility would now ponder if such activities could continue in the changed situation.

In 2021, Russia was Japan’s second biggest supplier of thermal coal, making up 12.48 per cent of its thermal coal imports. Russia was Japan’s fifth biggest supplier of crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 2021, accounting for 3.65 and 8.84 per cent of its total imports respectively. Japan accounted for 4.1 per cent of Russia’s crude oil exports and 7.2 per cent of its natural gas exports.[2] Though Japan has sufficient reserves of oil and LNG, the disruption of Russian supplies shall have a significant impact on energy supplies, at least in the short-term. International oil prices have already risen and its impact on companies and households not only on Japan but on many countries, including India, shall be felt.[3]

Interestingly, in the past on such occasions Japan had adopted rather a softer stance. The return of the four Kurile Islands presently under Russian occupation since the end of World War II remains a contentious issue between Japan and Russia and therefore did not want to unnecessarily complicate bilateral ties and chose to give priority on dialogue and diplomatic negotiations to resolve the issue. This time on the Ukraine issue, Japan chose a tougher stance along with the West.

Japan sensed the gravity of the crisis as governments, citizens, organisations and businesses around the world shared the crisis from the same viewpoints. By coming together and condemning the Russian move, Japan stood with the world as one by sending a sharp message to Putin for his misadventure and by imposing crippling sanctions.[4]

As the Ukranians stood firm to defend their sovereignty and terrirtorial integrity, the world came to their rescue with Germany, France, the US, Australia and others providing with defence equipment to strengthen the hands of Ukraine. Japan too provided some equipment, such as bullet proof vests, gloves, tents and helmets. [5] This is besides the $100 million (11.5 billion yen) in loans that Japan pledged to Ukraine to support its efforts to fight against Russia. An additional $100 million was too pledged for humanitarian assistance. Respecting the spirit of Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan had eschewed from exports of any lethal military hardware. When the nationalist Shinzo Abe was Prime Minister, he did try to annul this provision but unable to do so. In a limited way, he succeeded in 2014 in passing a decision by the Cabinet that allows the export of such equipment if certain conditioins are met, such as contributing to peace as well as the national security of Japan. This enabled the Kishida government to provide with certain kind of defence equipment to Ukraine.

Japan’s Response to Putin’s Nuclear Threat

When Putin announced to keep its nuclear asserts on alert, putting his nuclear forces on “special combat readiness” to ensure the Russian military be able to unleash its nuclear arsenal at a moment’s notice, the threat looked real. Russia’s Foreign Minister upped the ante further by saying that there could be devastating consequences if a nuclear conflaration takes place. Being the only victim of nuclear bomb in history, Japan was alarmed. Japan saw the world on the brink of unparalled crisis with Putin’s nuclear threat. The influential Asahi Shimbun observed in an editorial that the use of nuclear arms would be the ultimate inhumane act and the international community must express in the strongest possible terms its utter abhorrence to Russia’s such pronouncement and threat.[6]

As expected, Putin’s threat of nuclear use triggered a disastrous chain of serious reactions. This opened the floodgates of nuclear weapons-owning countries to think seriously if the use of nuclear wapons can be an option in a conflict situation. Putin’s threat also could tempt near-nuclear countries or countries capable of going nuclear in a short term if those see this nuclear armament as the only option for defence.

In view of the deteriorating scenario in the Northeast Asian region, this nuclear debate has been going on for quite some time in Japan and South Korea as doubts increase on the continued US nuclear deterrence and because of pressure from the US to increase security burden. There are some influential politicians in South Korea who have argued that South Korea should revisit its nuclear option. In Japan, Abe has been a great advocate of the nuclear deterrence theory. During his long tenure in office, he did try but did not succeed because of constitutional constraints and strong anti-nuclear sentiment.

Abe’s “nuclear sharing” Idea

Abe found an ideal opportunity on Russia’s military action on Ukraine to float the idea of “nuclear sharing”, which would allow Japan to host US nuclear weapons for use in a security crisis.[7] Whether such an idea when and if implemented would lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons is in itself a different matter. But what matters is the impact of Russia’s incursion on Ukraine could have on the political consciousness in various capitals where security threats loom large.

As expected, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida flatly rejected Abe’s idea, saying that in view of Japan’s position to adhere to the three Non-Nuclear Principles, nuclear-sharing idea cannot be acceptable. Kishida argued that nuclear-sharing would mean that the US shall be allowed to deploy its nuclear weapons in Japan even in peacetime and maintain an arrangement in which the country can load nuclear weapons onto its own fighter jets in the event of emergencies.

The Kishida government preferred to focus on greater international efforts to put pressure on Russia to abjure from such expansionist idea. Countries in possssion of nuclear weapons might be tempted to use it as a tool in international politics in order to achieve their goals but such an approach goes against internationally acceptable means to resolve disputes through dialogue and diplomacy.

Abe argued that sharing in the possession of nuclear weapons is practised by some NATO countries. His idea was aired by Fuji Television Network on 27 February wherein he discussed NATO’s nuclear deterrence concept with which multiple countries share nuclear capabilities. He wanted the same to be applied for Japan. [8]

Interestingly, Abe found support from the Opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party) on the nuclear-sharing idea. The party felt that Russia’s full-scale military assault on Ukraine was because Ukraine is a non-nuclear-weapons state whose security was exposed allowing a nuclear state to invade.[9] Party leader Ichiro Matsui argued that there should be a rethink on the three non-nuclear principles of not possessing, not producing and not permitting the introduction to Japan of nuclear weapons, especially at a time when a nuclear power is threatening to use nuclear weapon against a non-nuclear state.

Nippon Ishin is the third largest party in the Diet and its opinions can have some relevance and influence voters’ behaviour when the Upper House elections are held in the coming summer. Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the Democratic Party for the People, another opposition party, gave tacit endorsement to the nuclear-sharing idea in view of the changing security environment surrounding Japan.

As expected, the survivors of the atomic bombings reprersented by the Council of Hibakusha, Nagasaki Peace Movement Centre lambasted Abe on his idea of nuclear-sharing. [10] Abe’s suggestions were termed as “shameful”. The Hibakusha felt that Japan should pursue the path of diplomacy and never talk about expansion of armaments as the country has already experienced the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons that the US used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. What is signifiant to note is that Russia’s incursion into Ukraine’s sovereign territory has sparked a security debate in Japan and the inclusion of nuclear weapons in this could be worrying but also inevitable.

Endnotes :

[1] “Japanese firms mull exodus from Russia as sanctions bite”, The Asahi Shimbun, 2 March 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14561726
[2] “Factbox: Asian buyers of Russian oil, gas and coal”, 22 February 2022, https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/asian-buyers-russian-oil-gas-coal-2022-02-22/
[3] “Japan imposes sanctions on Russia over actions in Ukraine”, 23 February 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/japan-imposes-sanctions-russia-over-actions-ukraine-2022-02-23/
[4] “Standing as one, world can send sharp message to Putin”, Asahi Shimbun, editorial, 3 March 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14562098
[5] “Japan moving to supply Ukraine with defense equipment”, Asahi Shimbun, 4 March 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14563974
[6] “World on brink of unparalleled crisis with Putin’s nuclear threat”, Asahi Shimbun, editorial, 1 March 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14560543
[7] “Abe suggests Japan start ‘nuclear sharing’ discussion” Asahi Shimbun, 28 February 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14560003
[8] “Abe suggests Japan ‘nuclear sharing’ discussion”, Asahi Shimbun, 28 February 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14560003
[9] “Nippon Ishin calls for ‘nuclear sharing’ talks for Japan’s defense”, Asahi Shimbun, 2 March 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14561716
[10] “Abe draws ire from Hibakusha for suggesting ‘nuclear-sharing’”, Asahi Shimbun, 1 March 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14560829

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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