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The complete falling out of Russian-Japanese relations

The complete falling out of Russian-Japanese relations

The effects of the Ukraine war and China tensions have short-circuited efforts to strengthen ties

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

As the war in Ukraine moves into its third year, Russo-Japanese relations continue to deteriorate from the level that existed prior to the Russian invasion in 2022.

Relations between the two countries have never been smooth. Relations have been hampered since World War II by the inability to conclude a treaty formally ending hostilities between the two countries and a disagreement resulting from an old territorial dispute involving a chain of Pacific islands known in Japan as the Northern Territories and in Russia as the Southern Kuriles.

Even before the Ukraine conflict, Tokyo had complained about increased Russian military deployments on the islands.

Despite these lingering post-World War II hostilities, Shinzo Abe, who served as prime minister from 2012 to 2020, helped foster warmer relations with Moscow as he attempted to court Russia as a buffer against China, Japan’s greatest security threat. According to TASS, Putin and Abe met in person over 25 times and held about ten phone calls. Their last meeting took place in the fall of 2019 and their last telephone conversation was held on August 31, 2020, when Putin called Abe.

The cornerstone of the Putin-Abe relationship was based on strong personal respect as well as mutual interests in increased trade, particularly to feed Japan’s need for commodities. Abe also saw Russia as a potential buffer against an increasingly hostile China.

In 2013, Russo-Japan trade approached a record $34.8 billion and remained strong throughout the decade despite fluctuating oil prices. As recently as 2021, total trade turnover was still above $20 billion, with 45% percent consisting of fuel exports to Japan.

After the Ukraine invasion in February 2022, Tokyo revoked Russia's most-favored-nation status as part of a series of economic sanctions, including asset freezes targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian central bank. According to The Japan Times: “without the most-favored-nation status under the World Trade Organization rules…tariffs imposed on salmon imported from Russia have been raised to 5% from 3.5% and those on crab to 6% from 4%.” As a result of these and fuel-related sanctions, total trade amounted to barely $10 billion in 2023.

A decrease in imports of Russian coal by 67.1%, as well as a 44.9% drop in supplies of cars to Russia and Japanese spare parts and components by 32.5% amid sanctions against Moscow were the main factors behind the contraction of trade turnover. Energy resources and transport vehicles still account for over 69% of total trade turnover.

Despite the decrease in total trade, a February report from JETRO, the Japanese External Trade Organization, claims that 156 companies and economic organizations were active in Russia before 2022 and 35% reported they continue business without any changes.

Until the fall of 2023, Japan’s $12.1 billion contribution to Ukraine over the past two years consisted mostly of financial and humanitarian aid as its military equipment provisions have primarily been limited to non-lethal weapons. However, in December, Moscow reacted angrily when Japan stated it would be prepared to ship Patriot air defense missiles to the United States after revising its arms export guidelines. This represents Tokyo's first major overhaul of such export curbs in nine years. Although Japan's new export controls still prevent it from shipping weapons to countries that are at war, it may “indirectly benefit Ukraine in its war with Russia as it gives the United States extra capacity to provide military aid to Kiev.”

The diplomatic situation has taken on a more contentious character recently as well.

The Moscow Times reports that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on February 20 “slammed Japan's prime minister after he said his government remains committed to signing a peace treaty with Moscow to resolve the territorial dispute over an island chain claimed by Tokyo.” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in a policy speech to parliament earlier that day that Tokyo “remains fully committed” to negotiations over what Japan refers to as the Northern Territories and signing an agreement formally ending World War II. Kishida also said that his government's support of Ukraine and sanctions against Russia “would not waver.”

Mevedev responded on X: “We don’t give a damn about the ‘feelings of the Japanese’ concerning the so-called ‘Northern territories.” He added, “They’re not ‘disputed territories,’ but Russia.” This is indicative of the stance the Russian government has taken to Japan as an “unfriendly” country.

Japan has also taken economic initiatives towards reconstruction in Ukraine that are not pleasing to Moscow. In mid-February, the government of Japan hosted the Japan-Ukraine Conference for Promotion of Economic Growth and Reconstruction. The conference, organized by the Japanese and Ukrainian governments as well as business organizations and JETRO, can only be viewed as an indicator of Japanese geopolitical priorities in support of the status quo in Europe.

Moreover, Japanese efforts to spearhead reconstruction efforts send a clear indication that its priorities are allied with the United States and Europe Union.

According to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Japanese and Ukrainian government agencies and companies signed more than 50 deals, Japan pledged 15.8 billion yen ($105 million) in new aid for Ukraine to fund demining and other urgently needed reconstruction projects in the energy and transportation sectors, and President Kishida also announced the opening of a new government trade office Kyiv.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine its military cooperation with China has gotten stronger. Japan views their growing military cooperation as an unprecedented threat as it could become isolated in the region. As a result, it continues to try and demonstrate its commitment to the status quo in terms of supporting international sovereignty and law and order. While Japan’s elites would like to continue the stability offered by its Cold War military alliance with the United States and South Korea, they understand the U.S. may no longer share the same interests in the region.

Moreover, relations with South Korea are fractured and can make the alliance with the United States dysfunctional at times. This requires Japan to continue to seek openings with Russia that are in its own national interests. Although the Abe administration may have represented the peak for Russo-Japanese relations and such a level of relations is not replicable in the short term (particularly while Russia is still at war with Ukraine) it is in both Russia and Japan’s interests to foster cordial relations, if not entirely friendly ones, via business, cultural and other non-government exchanges. Japanese companies still share a desire to resume business operations and invest in Russia once the war concludes in Ukraine. In April 2022, negotiations were concluded between the two countries regarding salmon and trout fishing and other potential fishing agreements could be concluded in the future.

In addition, January 2024 saw double the number of Russian visitors to Japan as in January 2023. These are just two areas for positive interaction. However, a considerable measure of restraint will be required as a long war with Ukraine may erode possibilities even in these areas.

Ink Drop/ Shutterstock

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