Japan’s Reaction to Russia’s War in Ukraine - Transcript

Opener (00:00:00) 

This is the Nordic Asia Podcast. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:00:09) 

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region.   

I’m your host Ari-Joonas Pitkänen, Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for East Asian Studies at the University of Turku in Finland.  

In this episode we’ll discuss Japanese reactions to Russia’s war in Ukraine. In media and public discourse, we've already heard a lot about China's position in the Ukraine crisis, and I also discussed China’s reactions to the situation with Dr. Matti Puranen in a previous episode of the Nordic Asia Podcast. But the situation obviously has implications for East Asia also beyond China, and joining me today to broaden this perspective are two colleagues from the Centre for East Asian Studies here at the University of Turku: Dr. Kamila Szczepanska and Dr. Silja Keva, both of whom are specialists in Japanese society and politics. We will look at how Japan has reacted to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and how the situation might affect its relations with Russia and the West as well as the wider East Asian security environment just in general.  

So, Kamila and Silja, welcome to the podcast. 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:01:13) 

Hi, thank you for having me.  

Silja Keva (00:01:15) 

Hi, good morning. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:01:17) 

So when Russia launched its invasion in Ukraine, Western countries reacted strongly and condemned Russia’s aggression with a sort of newfound unity. But what about Japan? It’s a key ally of the United States in East Asia and also an important partner to the West in general, and actually Japan also has its own territorial disputes with Russia. So how has Japan reacted to the war in Ukraine? If we start with Kamila. 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:01:45) 

Yeah, thank you AJ. After the Russian armed aggression on Ukraine, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio promptly supported sanctions against Russia, and he also allocated emergency humanitarian assistance to address the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. And I guess that until today, Japan has pledged around 200 million US dollars in humanitarian assistance and then additionally 600 million US dollars in loans in order to support Ukrainian economy. So I guess that it is fair to say that Japan has acted swiftly in condemning the Russian aggression on Ukraine and also was very quick to align its position with the US and the EU. 

Silja Keva (00:02:24) 

Yeah, I think so too, and I think it was important for Japan to react quickly, and it was the first Asian country to do so, and to join the international effort against Russia, and I think by doing so, Japan showed that it has an active role as a G7 country, close ally of the US, and a strategic partner of the European Union. And if you look back to 2014 and the occupation of Crimea, compared to that Japan reacted now much faster and much more strongly. Japan was also invited to the first leaders’ emergency meeting in Brussels and is also invited at the highest level to the coming NATO summit, Kishida being the first Japanese prime minister ever to attend it. 

So Japan’s been included in the international front from the beginning. And I see that these current steps are very much in line with Japan’s foreign policy developments taken in the past decades. We know that for long Japan was criticized and known for its kind of checkbook diplomacy, and it has taken several steps to boost its profile in security and defense issues both domestically by establishing like the National Security Council and the National Security Strategy, this was back in 2013, and also by enabling collective self-defense. Another practical example is that Japan’s defense budget will now for the first time rise over the postwar norm of 1% of the GDP. 

Japan’s also been driving a foreign policy that highlights a value-based partnership with countries that share the similar values like democracy and human rights. One more thing I’d like to add here is that Japan’s going to assume a two-year post of a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council starting from January 2023. And this of course is also a position that will keep Japan in the centre of global affairs for the couple of next years. So it’s an interesting position for Japan here in the centre of – not in the centre, but as a part of this international front. 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:04:26) 

Yes exactly, and I guess that those steps undertaken by Japan do represent the country’s commitment to protecting the existing rules-based world order, but we also, I guess, need to remember that Japan’s policies have carried a stiff price tag, because they undercut Japan’s efforts to regain control over the disputed Northern Territories and to perhaps finally conclude a long-delayed peace treaty with Russia. We know that some time ago Japan was added to Russia’s list of unfriendly countries, and also Russia imposed an entry ban on Japanese prime minister and other officials.  

Silja Keva (00:05:03) 

Yeah, now that cooperation with Russia is frozen and dialogue over the territorial dispute in the Northern Territories is paused, I see that there is little need for Japan to compromise for Russia, and this is, has been visible by the way Japan has quickly started to use a more assertive approach with stronger words and arguments for why the Northern Territories belong to Japan. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:05:26) 

Okay, very interesting position regarding Japan in this issue. You mentioned there Japan’s territorial dispute with Russia regarding the Northern Territories and how the worsening relations with Russia have also led to sort of more assertive statements regarding these territories in Japan. And to those of our listeners who are unfamiliar with this dispute, the Northern Territories is the name that Japan uses for the four southernmost islands of the Kuril Islands that are located between the Japanese island of Hokkaido and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, and the islands are currently controlled by Russia, but these four southernmost islands, as I understand it, are claimed by Japan. And this has been a sort of longstanding issue obviously between Japan and Russia, so could you talk a bit more about this dispute and, for example, how did Japan approach the issue of the Northern Territories before the Ukraine crisis? 

Silja Keva (00:06:20) 

Well yeah, before the Ukraine crisis, Japan was practicing an approach towards Russia where it was trying to develop cooperation on different sectors with the idea of maintaining security and balance in East Asia, and the idea was that by engaging Russia on a variety of fields, Japan tried to balance against the emergence of a tighter Russia-China bloc. Of course, Japan was also interested in the energy and transportation developments in the Arctic where of course Russia is the key player. 

But now, after the beginning of the war, Russia was not among Japan’s key trade partners, so placing sanctions on Russia was manageable for Japan. Only 4% of Japan’s crude oil and 9% of liquid gas have come from Russia, and Japan’s also currently phasing out of coal imports from Russia. But of course, while Japan is not dependent on Russian energy or trade, unpredictable Russia is a risk for Japan too, and the negative impact of the war on the global economy is a situation that’s highly important for Japan as well. 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:07:26) 

And just to add on this collaborative relationship that Silja just mentioned, I think that this is important to also maybe underline that even when former Prime Minister Abe was presenting all of those new proposals and schemes for strengthening economic cooperation and linkages to the contested territories and Russia, at that time Russian government was constructing military facilities on the islands and also expanding its military potential in the area. So we can say that the prospects of settling the disputes were being used to extract concessions from Japan. Personally, I think that the negotiations would not lead to the regaining control over the Northern Territories by Japan. And I think that this is despite the fact that Prime Minister Abe leaned into accepting of the option that only two islands, smaller islands, Shikotan and Habomai, would ever be returned to Japan. Under Putin’s leadership, I simply do not see Russia relinquishing control over any territories that it already has, especially when we think about it from the perspective that it would be relinquishing territories for the benefit of the most important ally of the US in East Asia, which of course is Japan. 

Silja Keva (00:08:41) 

Yeah, and right now, for Japan it’s I think far more important to stay in the international front against Russia than focus on an island issue that is very difficult to solve anyway.  

Kamila Szczepanska (00:08:52) 

And I guess that this is actually quite interesting, Japan’s 2013 National Security Strategy that Silja actually mentioned earlier, this National Security Strategy spoke about the need to pursue a closer cooperation with Russia. When Prime Minister Abe was in power, such closer security dialogue and cooperation were important elements of his strategy of engaging Russia. And this approach was maintained despite the fact that Russia was engaging in military buildup on the disputed territories. However, now the revision of the National Security Strategy, which will come later this year, as is already stated, I think it will bring quite substantial changes to how Japan defines its relationship with Russia. So we’ll have to just wait and see, but I think it will be there. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:09:39) 

Okay, well what about the impact of the Ukraine situation on Japan’s own security and defense considerations just in general? Has there, for example, been talk about improving Japan’s preparedness to external threats due to this situation? 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:09:54) 

Right, so Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has indeed provided supporting arguments to politicians, commentators and other various intellectuals in Japan that have been calling for further revision of the country’s security policy in order to respond better to external threats. Also, we need to remember that Japan is not the only country that is currently considering adjusting its security policy. So we know that Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO, and this process is ongoing. Germany has decided to allocate substantial funds for modernisation of its own armed forces, reversing in this manner some of Germany’s longstanding security and defense policies. So those are far-reaching changes of historic proportions. So I think it’s fair to say that supporters of overhauling Japan’s security policy in the country can also point to those states to support their arguments that further changes of Japan’s security and defense policies are simply needed. 

Silja Keva (00:10:56) 

Yeah, I think these security related issues are definitely in the forefront around the world right now, also in Japan, and we’ve heard some quite interesting arguments, even recently the former Prime Minister Abe raised the possibility of having nuclear weapons on Japanese soil, an idea that faced very strong resistance in Japan because the topic of course is so difficult for a country that has suffered both the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the Fukushima nuclear accident. And in the case Ukraine now the safety of civilian nuclear power is something that Japan is following very closely. 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:11:32) 

Right, so as Silja just mentioned, some ideas such as this idea of Prime Minister Abe, former Prime Minister Abe, were rejected, but others have received an additional boost and additional support and perhaps additional interest. For example, the issue of securing Japan’s capability to strike enemy bases abroad was one of those matters. And this matter has been considered for some time, but now Russia’s actions towards Ukraine provided additional urgency to those discussions. And for instance, in April this year, a research commission on security of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, issued a set of recommendations for Prime Minister Kishida, thinking about the upcoming revision of the National Security Strategy. And those recommendations contain this particular point about securing capability to strike enemy bases abroad. 

Silja Keva (00:12:22) 

Yeah, it’s an interesting time. Prime Minister Kishida, who was, I think, initially regarded as a rather mild politician, has now a quite high support rate, about 60%, and I think partly behind this is his handling of foreign affairs. And his party is also expected to fare rather well in the coming upper house elections in July. Of course, the opposition is questioning where all this money will come from for the increases in the defense budget and these new plans, but I would argue that the coming elections will probably provide a chance for Kishida to secure his position and policy lines for the few years to come. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:13:02) 

Okay, interesting things there. One thing that I noted was that former Prime Minister Abe has actually raised the possibility of having nuclear weapons in Japanese soil, and of course, as you mentioned, this is something that is highly controversial given Japan’s history. But related to this, has the situation influenced the sort of longstanding debates in Japan about revising its pacifist constitution, which of course followed the Second World War? This Japan’s constitution famously includes the Article 9 that prohibits Japan from taking military action to solve disputes. And the possible revision of this clause has been a hot topic in Japanese politics for quite a long time already. So has this been brought up again, this specific point about revising Japan’s constitution, now in light of the current situation? 

Silja Keva (00:13:50) 

Yes, the war-denouncing Article 9, it has been iconic for post-war Japan’s politics both domestically and internationally, and despite the very high value that the public places on this constitution and the Article 9, the interpretation of the Article 9 is already quite stretched, and many have over the years questioned whether there really is need to actually change the Article 9 anymore. 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:14:16) 

Right, so many observers and commentators began to wonder whether it will be Russian aggression on Ukraine that will finally lead to the revision of the famed Article 9 of Japanese constitution, so in short, whether this is the moment, whether this is the critical juncture when Japan will finally after all of those years abandon its pacifism. And I think that we can here turn to opinion polls conducted by the major news outlets in Japan on a yearly basis. And this year, those opinion polls did indeed show an increase in support for constitutional revision. So for example, an opinion poll that was run by Asahi Shimbun showed that 56% of respondents would support constitutional revision. I think that for Kyodo, it was 50%, for Yomiuri Shimbun it was the highest, 60, but then for NHK, for instance, 35%. 

But I guess that we need to also underline that support rates for revising Article 9 or some parts of it are significantly lower. So this basically means that there is still not a lot of willingness among Japanese populace to accept changes to the Article 9, especially substantial changes. So I guess that this is very important, to distinguish here when we look at this domestic debate, that we have those overall levels of support for the revision of the constitution in general and then the levels of support for revising the Article 9 specifically might actually be different. And looking at the current situation, I actually think that this year’s surveys actually did not provide Prime Minister Kishida and his government and also the ruling LDP with a clear signal that the revision of the Article 9 would be supported in a potential national referendum. I may be mistaken on this point, but for the time being I think that this would be my take on this matter. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:16:12) 

Okay, well yeah, that’s a very good point that you mentioned there that we need to separate the constitution in general and then the Article 9 separately from that, because public opinion and willingness might be different based on that, that’s a good point. But if we turn now to a sort of wider perspective, regarding the regional and global context, if we look at Russia’s aggression in the sort of regional context in East Asia, what sort of implications does it have for the overall development of the East Asian security environment from Japan’s point of view? 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:16:45) 

Yes, it definitely has multiple implications. So the conflict in Ukraine has really demonstrated the strengthening of linkages between Russia and China. And this is something that Japan was trying to prevent through this closer collaboration with Russia that Silja was talking about earlier. And of course those concerns about increasing collaboration between Russia and China are legitimate. They are legitimate concerns, but we cannot forget about limitations of this allegedly strategic relationship between Russia and China, because here China really needs to balance its support for Russia with not hampering or not endangering economic relationship with the EU, US, and Japan. However, having said that, I think that any military cooperation, increased cooperation between China and Russia, that would exert pressure on Japan from two directions, from north and from south, it’s actually worrying for Japanese authorities. And additionally, I think that I would like to mention that Japan’s efforts to develop its military capacities and capabilities could actually unsettle neighbouring countries, and by that I mean China but of course South Korea, which will naturally lead to further increase in tensions in the region unfortunately. 

Silja Keva (00:18:05) 

Yeah, this current crisis is something that is very important for Japan from the perspective that what’s now taking place in Ukraine could also happen in East Asia. And this is something Prime Minister Kishida has been now repeatedly saying in international fora, and because we know that there are regional disputes and tensions over Taiwan, over South China Sea, and over East China Sea, and then the Northern Territories. And while at the core of all these tensions are territorial disputes, they have tremendous importance for Japan’s economic and energy security, which makes them very important and difficult questions for Japan. Both East and South China Sea are scenes for major sea transportation lanes through which energy and trade transportation to Japan takes place. And that’s why the regional stability and safety of these seaways is indispensable for Japan which is a country that’s highly dependent from imported energy that is really transported through these areas. And due to the concern that China’s presence and action in the area has caused for Japan, Japan has for several years already been assisting Southeast Asian countries to maintain the safety of the seaways from their part in the area.  

So the whole regional setting is a kind of balancing act for Japan, and now in this new international environment, Japan I think wants and needs to show a bit more assertive line towards its neighbours, which are nuclear-armed countries – China, Russia, and North Korea – that if they resort to unilateral action in the area, it is very dangerous for the status quo of the area. So Japan has been doing this verbally by calling regional and international attention to this area and also by warning neighbours not to shake the status quo. For example, last weekend at the Shangri-La security dialogue in Singapore this was the message Japan was bringing to the table. And then of course, Japan has been boosting its, or is in the process of discussing boosting its defense capabilities and its alliances. In terms of Southeast Asia, Japan wants and needs to provide an alternative or a counterweight to China, but while doing so, it also needs to avoid a situation where it would force ASEAN countries to choose between China and Japan, so it’s a balancing act. 

With South Korea, the relations have been very strained since 2018–2019, but now with the new president Yoon in South Korea and a US push, there are some signs of possible thawing of relations, for example trilateral military exercises between Japan and South Korea and US are back on track. However, at this point it’s still a bit early to say whether there is, or how strong the political will on both sides is to resume the earlier relations. But this is also one element that the war on Ukraine has caused for this area. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:21:01) 

Okay, well definitely all sorts of regional implications, I want to focus on a specific thing that Silja mentioned there. You mentioned the Shangri-La security dialogue, which was held in Singapore, and actually one of the very big news headlines that came from that dialogue was the question of Taiwan, because the Chinese foreign minister actually in very sort of assertive terms once again reiterated that China is willing to use all measures including force to resist Taiwan’s independence, possible Taiwanese independence. This was after the discussions between the Chinese foreign minister and the American foreign minister there, sorry, defense minister, and you know, I was wondering what are the implications of the Ukraine crisis regarding Taiwan in this regional context, because you know, obviously there has been a lot of discussion in and around Taiwan regarding the similarities of Russia and Ukraine with the tense relations between China and Taiwan, which are obviously now once again very much in the spotlight. And I also discussed this aspect in the previous podcast episode with Dr. Matti Puranen, so the Taiwan question is currently a very big one relating to this Ukraine situation. And it obviously has implications Japan as well, I would imagine at least, because along with the United States, Japan is perhaps the most important regional supporter for Taiwan in East Asia. So how do you see this, does this have an impact on Japan’s regional security calculation, this Taiwan connection? 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:22:30) 

Definitely, and as you mentioned AJ, Taiwan topic is very hot topic right now, and naturally there are multiple lessons that US and Japan have drawn from Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, and thinking how similar scenarios should and could be addressed in East Asia. And you and Silja have been speaking about the most recent Shangri-La Dialogue, and there Prime Minister Kishida in his keynote speech mentioned that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”, exactly something that Silja already underlined. He pledged to increase Japan’s defense and deterrence capabilities over the next five years, and he also, I think quite interestingly, spoke about “realism diplomacy for a new era”, and I believe that this new “realism diplomacy for a new era” will definitely be applied to the challenge posed by any sort of Taiwan Strait contingency. But I guess that we need to remember that, well, any possible attack on Taiwan and response, or sorry, response to any possible attack on Taiwan will be happening within the framework of the US-Japan alliance. So in the event of a conflict, Japan would of course play an important role in terms of providing support for US operations. And I think that here military bases in Japan will be definitely of a key importance in such military support. And even more importantly, US bases that are located on Okinawa.  

You did mention AJ that, you know, the similarities between the scenarios. There are of course certain similarities, but I guess that we also cannot forget about the differences, that those two cases, Ukraine case and Taiwan Strait case, are actually different in many respects, and just to name the, just two perhaps differences, I would like to mention China and Taiwan’s role in global economy and also the existing American commitments to Taiwan in terms of defense. And I guess that in the end, those differences will shape the US response to any potential conflict, any potential Taiwan Strait contingency, and by extension they will also shape Japan’s response as such. So I guess that this is what I would like to add to this topic here. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:24:37) 

Okay, yeah, well you know, very interesting question, and the Taiwan question, as I mentioned, it’s always in the spotlight and threat of war in some capacity has always been there. But you know, Western countries have recently also started to put more focus on the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific region in general, and Japan, for example, is also a member of the QUAD security dialogue group along with Australia, India, and the United States. So from Japan’s perspective, how is the current situation reflected in the Indo-Pacific region? 

Silja Keva (00:25:10) 

Yeah, the Indo-Pacific area is a highly interesting one. It’s viewed as a multipolar area, being too big for one power to really dominate alone. So I think we’ll see that the importance of this area will increase with increasing levels of competition and connection-building, like we see with QUAD. And for Japan, the policy of free and open Indo-Pacific and the QUAD, I think, will continue to be the key policy lines. 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:25:38) 

Yeah, I definitely agree with Silja, but of course we should add here that within QUAD, India’s unwillingness to condemn Russia and to join sanctions has been a major headache for the remaining partners. However, it seems that, you know, during the last meeting of QUAD, which happened in May this year in Tokyo, those sort of differences over Ukraine crisis have been managed, and the members of QUAD decided to focus on what unites them, which is of course the problem of China. Still, the statement that was issued at the end of the meeting really demonstrates support of QUAD members for the rule of law, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and peaceful means of resolving disputes, and QUAD members actually showed that they do object to unilateral actions to change the status quo. So I guess that in the end, without ever mentioning Russia, the statement really condemns Russia’s actions and conduct in Ukraine. I think it’s also important that the statement also welcomes EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and also increased European engagement in Indo-Pacific. But I guess that there is still a lot of uncertainty on how far EU will be actually able to follow through with all those plans that it might have concerning Indo-Pacific precisely because of the challenges that we see now on the European theatre. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:27:06) 

Okay, well, you just mentioned there the EU and its role regarding the Indo-Pacific. But what about Japan’s relations with Europe just in general? As we mentioned earlier, Russia’s attack in Ukraine resulted in this sort of newfound unity within the EU and also within the West in general, so has it also strengthened Japan’s relations with the EU or NATO, for example? 

Silja Keva (00:27:31) 

Yeah this is interesting, because Japan’s relations with Europe have long suffered from a kind of lack of real initiative and political ambition, despite the high potential that this partnership would have and the high level rhetoric. But I agree with what Kamila says that it is, there’s still a lot of uncertainty and it remains to be seen whether, what will materialize concretely out of this new situation. As for Ukraine, Japan’s provided financial aid to Ukraine, as already mentioned, and it may well be that Japan will also participate in the rebuilding of the country in some form. One interesting development is a new defense agreement between Japan and UK that was signed earlier, that was in May, yes, and this is the first defense agreement between Japan and a European country of this kind.  

But I think we can say that the war has been bringing Japan closer to Europe in general in security issues at least through NATO. Of course, Japan’s been already for years having dialogue and information sharing and practical training cooperation with NATO in issues such as maritime security or cyber defense, all topics that are very important for Japan in general, and because Japan is a US ally, a G7 country and a strategic partner of the EU, this is a natural development, and also a reflection of Japan’s motivation to strengthen cooperation with likeminded countries. Also the NATO has reinforced relations with the four Asia-Pacific partners, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea, already before the war. But the war in Ukraine is, of course, boosting this more global approach, and one result is that Prime Minister Kishida has been invited to the June NATO summit as already stated. So this, I think, again highlights that the current crisis cannot be discussed without thinking about East Asia as well, although the situation is different for East Asia, but there are definitely important topics to be considered. As for domestic debate, the NATO countries’ 2% defense budget has recently been used as a new yardstick for Japan to argue for the higher defense budget. 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:29:41) 

Yeah, I definitely agree with Silja’s assessment here, and the only thing that I could add is that perhaps it is still too early to speak about, you know, if you want to be poetic, about EU’s pivot toward Japan and away from China. But as Silja said, we have definitely seen strengthening of EU-Japan relations in the recent months following the Russian invasion on Ukraine, and I guess that it will be interesting to observe what will come out of that cooperation and these increasing linkages in the near and far future. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:30:13) 

Alright, well, a lot of really interesting points here regarding Japan’s own security considerations and the regional context and also the global context with Japan’s relations with Europe. Really, we live uncertain times and an ongoing situation where everybody really in the international arena has to rethink their approach and their position to this evolving situation. Thank you, Kamila and Silja, for this discussion on Japan’s reactions to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. I believe this will really help our listeners as they continue to follow the ongoing changes in global security from an East Asian perspective in particular. So thank you very much to both of you for joining the podcast! 

Kamila Szczepanska (00:30:56) 

Thank you, it was a pleasure. 

Silja Keva (00:30:57) 

Thank you. 

Ari-Joonas Pitkänen (00:30:58) 

And to our listeners, thank you for joining the Nordic Asia Podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration and studying Asia. 

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