Written by Misato Matsuoka.

While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not met the leaders of neighbouring South Korea or China, he has dedicated significant effort to improving ties with Russia. Since returning to power in 2012, Abe has met President Putin five times and participated in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics this February. While US and European leaders stayed away, Abe reunited with Putin’s dog “Yume” (dream in Japanese), Japan’s gift for Russia’s assistance for the 2011 earthquake. Improving Japan’s relationship with Russia has been one of the objectives of the second Abe administration, due to the unsolved territorial disputes involving four small islands and the economic advantages from Russian energy resources in the post-Fukushima period.

In addition to territorial and economic considerations, China’s rising power has been another factor that is bringing the two countries together, particularly in the realm of maritime security. In 2012, Russia supported Japan’s candidacy for observer status at the Arctic Council when the Chinese vessel Xue Long (Snow Dragon) navigated the Northern Sea Route. As “Arctic Friends”, Russia and Japan furthered their relationship by holding their first “2+2” meeting in early November 2013 and confirming joint navy exercises to combat terrorism and piracy in the Gulf of Aden. During that meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov remarked that “the 2+2 format of the meeting will play an increasingly important role in the improvement of the Russian-Japanese dialogue”.

Contradiction with the US-Japan Alliance?

Some may question whether a closer Russo-Japanese relationship would harm Japan’s relationship with the US, which has been the major underpinning of Tokyo’s foreign and defence policy for over 60 years. However, the Abe administration is trying to strengthen the alliance with collective self-defence and revision of postwar Constitution. Even during the “2+2” meeting between Japan and Russia, Japanese Foreign Minister reiterated that there will be no changes and that the US-Japan alliance remains the linchpin of Japan’s defence policy. In fact, Russia is concerned about the joint US-Japan missile defense system which could undermine the strategic balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region which is “a grave concern” from the Russian perspective. However, Russia indicated that developing Russo-Japanese ties are not intended to infringe on Japan’s relations with the US which implies Russia’s recognition of Japan’s foreign policy with the central focus on the US-Japan alliance. Jeffrey Mankoff, a Russia and Eurasia expert at Centre of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), explained that an increased Russo-Japanese cooperation is a welcome development from the US perspective which should be encouraged for a more resilient regional security order. He noted that this may also undermine the prospects for a Chinese-Russian axis.

The Ukraine Crisis as a Litmus Test for Japan

The crisis in Ukraine can be regarded as a litmus test for Japan under the Abe administration. Russia’s intention to annex Crimea has posed a challenge for Japan. While the US and EU have been eager to promote sanctions for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Japan was slow in making its decision on whether to join the “G7” side or not. Yet, on March 12th, Japan decided to join G7’s declaration condemning Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity although Japan made a weaker statement calling on “all parties” – not only Russia but also Ukraine – to “behave with maximum self-restraint and responsibility”. Unlike the confrontational tone of the G7 statement, Japan’s avoids singling out Russia for condemnation and implies both sides share responsibility for settling the issue which reflects Abe’s intention to give consideration to Russia. A high-ranking Japanese Foreign Ministry official also explained that while the statement contains criticism of Russia, it is intended to keep a balance between the US and Russia.

There is an awareness that a closer relationship with Russia may infringe the US-Japan alliance during the Ukraine crisis. One high-ranking Japanese governmental official remarked that considering the degree of Russia’s actions, there is a danger that the Japan-U.S. alliance could “collapse” if Japan took a pro-Russia position. Michael Green, a former National Security Council official and an expert on the US-Japan alliance, also warned that Japan risks undermining its status as a member of the liberal-democratic club of nations if it fails to join in sanctions. We can see that it has been a difficult time for Japan to maintain its balance between Russia, and US and EU.

Is Balance between US and Russia Possible?

A recent article notes that Japan’s balancing act between Washington and Moscow, “trying not to go too far in criticizing Russia while going far enough to satisfy the U.S.”, is increasingly difficult to achieve. Although the Russian side seems to acknowledge that the US-Japan alliance has been the pillar of Japanese foreign policy, their behaviour might change after Japan takes the side of other G7 members. It is possible that a negotiation on territorial disputes may slow down again and Russia’s worsening relationship with the US and EU may damage Japan’s ongoing improved dialogue with Russia which may have undesirable consequences for Japan’s energy security. Although Abe has been eager to take the lead and build closer ties with Russia during his second term as Prime Minister, he cannot completely ignore US presence, especially when a crisis occurs between US and Russia. Nowadays, it is widely accepted in the US that Abe holds reactionary beliefs that deny what has been built up throughout Japan’s “postwar regime” and it seems that other G7 members, the US especially, will be keeping an eye on Japan. Considering that Japan decided to join G7’s strong statement against Russia and Abe’s recent statement at the Japanese Diet which condemned Russia for “violating the unity, sovereign and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Japan may be tilting toward the G7 grouping and retreating from its relationship with Russia in the midst of the crisis.

Misato Matsuoka is a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and CPI blog’s Emerging Scholar. Research interests cover the U.S.-Japan alliance, neo-Gramscianism and regionalism in Asia-Pacific.