Know Official Lines
Entitled “Japan Stands with Ukraine”, the principles of Japan on the Ukraine-Russian War is posted on the homepage of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Some of the key aspects of the principles are:
- Provision of Assistance to Ukrainian people including emergency humanitarian assistance of US$ 100 million, donating defensive gear such as bulletproof vests, helmets, winter battle dress uniform, and accepting war evacuees from Ukraine to Japan;
- Imposing on Russia trade and financial punitive measures including the revocation of Russia’s most favored nation status and the prevention of international financing to Moscow from the leading multilateral financial institutions such as IMF and freezing assets of seven Russian banks with operations in Japan;
- Joining US-led efforts to isolate Russia from the international financial system and the global economy such as excluding selected Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system; and
- Prohibiting the issuances or transactions of new Russian sovereign debt in the primary and secondary market. In addition, for certain designated Russian banks already prohibited from issuing or offering securities in Japan
Similar measures have been taken against Belarus as well as the latter effectively acts as if it were an extension of Putin’s Russia.
The public in Japan are also reacting quickly. The Japanese, who were much less sensitive to the violation of human rights in Myanmar, turned out to be sensitive to the violation of peace in Ukraine.
The Japanese government was not reluctant in taking the above measures. When the position of the United States is clear, Japan does not argue. As the opposition parties are willing to take advantage of this international situation to attack the current ruling coalition for the past failure to negotiate with Russia in ongoing territorial issues, the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, must preempt them by demonstrating how far Japan can go with the United States against Russia. In this sense, the behavior of the government of Japan is similar to the period when Bush was fighting Saddam Hussein. Therefore, whether their policies work or not, the thinking of the Japanese leaders is not strategic but superficial allegiance with the United States. And just like in the spring of 2003, Japan has no idea where the war is going, and no political will to influence the direction, except to echo the voice for peace coming from the people, who love peace more than justice and human rights.
National Security Paranoia
The Russian aggression certainly deserves worldwide condemnation. This started as an unprovoked war in February 2022. But at the same time, it is also true that the expansion of NATO eastward since the 1990s was a provocative move on the part of the United States and Europe, and there has been serious miscommunication between the West and Russia. One problem common across both in Europe Union and Japan policy circles is figuring out what to do with the old Cold War alliance in the post-Cold War era.
The US persuaded Japan to evolve into a more lasting alliance in which Japan assumews a larger role to help the US war in East Asia, But in Europe, countries which formerly belonged to the sphere of influence of Moscow, including the former republics of the USSR, joined NATO, clearly betraying Russia from the Russian perspective. For Japan, the supposed enemy of the alliance with the United States can be not only be Russia but also China and North Korea, but for NATO, Russia remained the only one supposed enemy.
It is natural that the United States and Europe hoped that Ukraine would resist courageously, at least in the initial phase of the war, especially as NATO had focused on enabling the Ukrainian resistance to build a strong “insurgency” against the anticipated Russian occupation force. Yet it bears repeating that the current situation in Ukraine was avoidable, and the world, especially the United States and Europe, bear a considerable degree of responsibility.
Zelenski, the president of Ukraine, said that, if Ukraine had joined NATO, there would not have been Russian aggression against Ukraine. This may be true. But it is also possible to say, that if NATO had not expended after WWII, or if Zelenski had not shown any move to join NATO, there would not have been this war.
The humiliation of Russia as a result of the expansion of NATO since the 1990s was obvious. The official narrative of Ukrainian political changes in the 2010s leaves a lot of room for doubt. It is possible that the United States was doing its best to manipulate the internal politics of Ukraine using its money and influence. Putin’s accusation of the extremism in Ukraine may be exaggerated, but probably not baseless.
When Ukraine, a key founding member of the original Soviet Union, decided to be independent, it took away from the old USSR a considerable landmass which Russia regarded as not belonging to them. In other words, Russia after the disintegration of the USSR was born as a state with considerable irredentism inside.
What kind of neighbor Russia has is always important to Russia. Two examples spring to mind: The Russian war with Finland at the early stage of WWII and Russian war in Afghanistan in 1979.
In both cases, Russia needed more land for the sake of the defense of what Russia already had. And the land Russia tries to control means that Russia needs more space to protect its already big space.
Russia needs parts of eastern Europe as a buffer against NATO, the military alliance of Europe and the United States. Russia is similar to China, which needs the survival of North Korea located near Beijing.
Russia is similar to the United States, which does not like the existence of Cuba, and intervened historically very often in the affairs of central America.
Russia is similar to Israel, which will not allow a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state.
In other words, the desire for such sphere of influence as in the Monroe Doctrine is not limited to the United States, it is a common for all big states. For Russia, the United States must be seen as unfair to the extent of hypocrisy.
The Russian use of force in Crimea, Donbass, and the areas between the two is abnormal, and its justification is too artificial. It is in similar ways the USA expanded to take Texas which got independence from Mexico, and subsequently robbed Mexico of Arizona and California in the 19th century.
Russia is cruel to the Ukrainians, but it is concealed that the United States and Europe are also cruel to the Ukrainians. The United States and Europe, while announcing their understanding that an attack on Ukraine is NOT an attack on them, try to use the continuation of the devastation of Ukraine for the purpose of weakening Russia. The Ukrainians have a good reason to believe that in this war, even if they fight better than expected, they are abandoned by all and used by all. There is no question that this war has a dimension of a proxy war, as happened in Afghanistan.
If the United States allows Southeast Asia pro-China neutrality, why does it now not allow a buffer zone for Eastern Europe, especially the former republics of the USSR? For the past 30 years, China has expanded enormously to the South China Sea. The United States looked the other way and pushed Russia, despite what looked like an understanding between Russia and the United States that NATO would not include former Soviet allies. This raises a question with respect to the correctness of the agenda of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In a sense, this situation is simple. What was doomed failed.
The current situation can make China very happy. If Russia depends more on China, Russia will have to return its debt to China in the long term. If world attention is paid more to Russia than to China, China will have time to breathe in its trade and technology war with the United States. What precipitated the decline of the USSR was the development of US-China friendship against the USSR since the 1970s in the context of the China-Russia conflict. If the US goal in the next future is to contain China, the US conflict with Russia must have limits.
The only concern for China now is that economic sanctions may be imposed on China if China noticeably assists Russia. This idea can be useful. But overlooking Chinese approval of the Burmese military and blaming Chinese assistance to Russia totally lacks balance. The former means a response to the illegitimate extension of the Cold War alliance network contradicting former diplomatic understanding, and the latter is tolerance to a genocidal regime for the expansion of strategic and economic interests of the state. Russia and China, being even more united, may more efficiently help the Burmese military.
History Offers Some Lessons
The Japanese are shocked by Russian President Putin. Few Japanese correctly predicted this war. But some of them know that this is not a matter of Putin but the way Russia has historically existed.
The Japanese accept the western narrative that it is not Russia but Putin that is eager to fight this war. Since the beginning of war, the media almost stopped asking what Russia is doing and why. It asks what Putin is doing and why. (This hypothesis, may already contain US propaganda.)
The Japanese public opinion is in favor of sending of non-lethal weapons to Ukraine, and watch how Russian oligarchs are treated in Europe. The Japanese feel more threatened by Russia, according to opinion polls.
The Japanese see Zelensky as heroic, but do not see him as totally trustworthy. Some Japanese sense that it is his amateurish populism that invited Russia to Ukraine, and that the fundamental tragedy of Ukraine before the current war is that Ukraine could not have had statesmen since its independence. But these opinions cannot be voiced loud enough.
The Japanese know that Russia does not cede an inch of the territory disputed with Japan, which they took illegally from Japan, not during, but after WWII. This places Japan in a relatively better position to imagine how the Russians feel about the territory of Ukraine, which used to be legally theirs.
The Japanese are not surprised at Russian brutality. Japanese were there when Russian forces invaded Manchukuo in 1945. Half a million Japanese soldiers were taken to Siberia for forced labor. Many of them perished in Siberia.
Actually, the best way for Japan to disturb Russia’s determination at this point is to use its own force to take control of the disputed territories much closer to Japan than the mainland of Russia. Of course, this is not an option under the post-war constitution of Japan. Before the end of WWII, the world had a system to make Russia feel threatened by a two-front war from the West and the East. Now Russia can feel free to focus its attention to its western border.
Ukraine and Taiwan
The Japanese are not sure whether Russian policy to Ukraine is linked to Chinese policy to Taiwan. In my view.
First, the Russian invasion of Ukraine should have been prevented, at any cost, for the sake of keeping China confused about the effect of similar aggression. But this is now too late. It is proven that the United States and Europe try their best not to be seen as involved in the war, as seen in their avoidance of NFZ.
Second, the American and European transfer of weapons to the attacked, an essential factor to keep Ukraine fighting, depends on the land border between Ukraine and other East European states. This is missing in Taiwan. It would be next to impossible in the case of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
The world should have made sure the above points remained unclear, to make China nervous. But China can now be more tempted to attack. It is too late.
But it is also possible to ask, when China can enjoy a relatively long-lasting breathing time, why risk war with the world with respect to Taiwan? It is better for China to wait. In this sense, the world situation is again similar to 2003. When an argument of the China Threat was budding in the United States before the so-called war on terror, with misguided efforts led by the Neoconservatives, the United States began to need China’s cooperation for its war on terror. Some of the big problems of contemporary Asia, such assertive China and even more uncontrollable DPRK, are the products of the self-righteous policies of the United States in this period. Without learning lessons, Japan will follow the myopic United States again.
In sum, the world has no choice but to condemn the Russian aggression against Ukraine. It has no choice but to help the Ukrainians to end the war with honor. But it is the role of the Ukrainians to produce statesmen who understand that the Ukrainians need to suspect not only the Russians but also the Americans and the Europeans, and to be determined to walk on the tightrope. Before getting angry at the Russians, the US should recognize that this is another major failure of US foreign policy and that its failure will last so long as it does not see beyond Russia.
Gakushuin University, Tokyo Japan
Banner: City View, Kiev, Ukraine. Robert Anasch, Unsplash