Explaining Japan’s About-Face on Russia


The Kishida-Biden and Quad summits of May 23-24, 2022 showcased not only Biden’s determination to turn the Ukraine war into a catalyst for a more vigorous US policy in the Indo-Pacific, but also the Kishida administration’s shift in Japanese foreign policy, building as well on the momentum of the war in Europe. For Biden, it meant connecting fierce opposition to Russia’s malign behavior to his priority on facing China’s expansionist aspirations in Asia. For Kishida, it was a more fundamental reorientation: an illusion of wooing Putin while resisting Xi Jinping gave way to a strategy of making an about-face toward Putin and joining the US and Europe in combatting the Sino-Russian scourge to international order. At the late June G7 and NATO summits, Kishida affirmed his shift. How Japan transformed its Russia policy warrants our close attention.

For a decade, Japan followed a misleading track in its policy toward Russia with spillover across Europe and to the United States. Although this did not stand in the way of far-sighted strategic thinking, including toward much of Asia and the Japan-US alliance, it was sharply at odds with the key decisions required in 2022. Seemingly abruptly, Japanese leaders made the switch. This article explains how that proved possible.

When Russia seized Crimea and sent separatists to grab part of Luhansk and Donetsk, the Abe administration appeared more eager to sustain diplomacy with Russia than to stand firmly with the G7 against blatant aggression. Its response in 2014 was rightly termed minimalist. In 2022 the Kishida administration marched in lockstep with the United States, the European Union, and NATO in opposing Putin’s Ukraine war, in both words and deeds. To explain the reversal, we look back to how policy softened from 2000 and then to Abe’s fateful decisions as he wooed Putin for more than seven years. We turn also to contradictions with Japan’s other foreign policies, mounting even before the Ukraine war. The seeds of a much harsher stance toward Russia had been planted.

Abe’s Wooing of Putin
Abe’s wooing of Putin was rooted in four lines of reasoning, which had gained ground in a small circle of Japanese politicians despite a decade of frozen ties with Moscow in 2002 to 2012. First were the lingering aspirations for a distinctive Japanese diplomatic breakthrough in Asia, which had surfaced in the 1950s, shared between conservatives, such as Abe’s grandfather, Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, and progressives. This is sometimes known as Asianism. The crux of Asianist aspirations for the mainstream is not to break away from the United States but to rekindle confidence that Japan is a great power with a powerful voice and far-reaching respect in Asia. Having targeted Southeast Asia, China, North Korea, and India in various incarnations, such aspirations kept returning to Russia despite US criticisms that they misjudged the nature of the Soviet Union in the 1950s-60s and Russia in the 1990s and 2010s. They drew on both idealistic illusions and a thirst by a Japanese leader for lasting renown for a national identity success. In line with his family legacy, Abe sought to leave an enduring mark on history via Asianism.

“Normal Japan” is a slogan with multiple meanings, one of which is an Asian foreign policy at least symbolic of autonomy from the United States. A key development in this direction was the 1977 visit of Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo to the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, where, in a dramatic manner, postwar Japan overcame its image as an invader and defeated power in Asia. His Manila speech articulated three principles for diplomacy in Southeast Asia, known as the Fukuda Doctrine (it would not become a military great power, it would forge relations of trust, and it would contribute to peace and prosperity). The pursuit of Moscow resumed a decade later with the Abe family. After the focus had turned to Beijing, Moscow again became a target in the late 1980s with Abe’s father, Abe Shintaro, in the forefront, a foreign minister aspiring to a breakthrough.

Second, Japanese accommodation of Moscow was driven by the large payoff expected for national identity and the political legacy of any leader who could return the Northern Territories seized by the USSR after Japan had announced its surrender. Their return had served as a symbol of putting the postwar, abnormal era of a defeated, passive power behind. Abe desperately hoped to be the historic leader able to achieve this goal. In the 1990s it was unthinkable that the recovery of just the two tiny islands closest to Hokkaido would suffice to mark an identity breakthrough, but Abe took the circumstances of a recently besieged Japan in Northeast Asia to narrow the scope of success and was encouraged by Putin to make compromises toward this outcome.

The national identity potential of this proof of “normal Japan,” ending the postwar era, was even greater than that of achieving “Asianism.” Yet, the return of only two islands along with conditions Russia sought to impose raised doubts among many in Japan that this deserved to be considered a success. Abe’s strong conservative credentials shielded him from such attacks, he probably assumed, as he pressed forward.

It is doubtful that Putin ever seriously considered yielding even the two islands. He cleverly dangled such a prospect to divide Japan, put Japan-US relations under a cloud, and give weight to his “Turn to the East” for its diplomatic energy without ever worrying the Russian public that he might actually concede territory.  No matter how Putin disappointed Abe’s repeatedly optimistic timetable for progress in talks, Abe kept up his overtures and positive spin, seeking a legacy success, even in 2019 when Russia demanded as a precondition for a deal that Japan accept its September 1945 seizure of the islands as legitimate.

Third, and some say the driving force in wooing Putin, was the idea that this was the smart thing to do for geopolitics. Given the mounting concern over China’s expansionist intentions and North Korea’s threat potential, driving a wedge between Russia and these countries was a goal for Abe, who had doubts about Obama’s commitment to oppose China and Trump’s strategic acumen. Japan knew better than its ally what was needed for the regional balance of power. In Southeast and South Asia, Abe’s instincts were praised and rewarded, but in the far more volatile Northeast Asia, many had doubts, including in Japan. He was alarmed that Moscow would join Beijing in pressuring Japan, but as Sino-Russian relation drew increasingly close, his hopes proved futile.

There were three geopolitical arguments that Abe failed to grasp, in the opinion of Japanese on the right and the left, as well as of many in the foreign ministry. First, he underestimated Putin’s ruthless, expansionist intentions. They left no room for geopolitical closeness to a US ally. And he failed to grasp the dynamics of the Sino-Russian quasi-alliance, as it kept growing closer. Driving a wedge between the two was an illusion, given Putin’s pursuit of Xi Jinping as part of his high priority geopolitical agenda. Abe refused to accept warnings about this. And Abe lacked appreciation of how derisively Russia viewed Japan’s great power claim. Given these three realities, geopolitics did not justify pursuit of Putin.

Why should one doubt that geopolitics drove Abe’s Russia policy? The most consequential advisors in theKantei were men from an economics background, having served in METI, who said little to make the geopolitical case, and also did not think seriously about problems of national sovereignty. Foreign ministry experts, including ones from the Russian school, were bypassed and not known to back Abe’s overtures. Finally, Abe was proceeding against the geopolitical judgment of US officials, who saw the situation differently. If the media increasingly explained Abe’s wooing as aimed at distancing Putin from Xi Jinping, that does not appear to have been the real driving force.

Fourth, Abe underestimated the momentum building in Washington for a holistic Indo-Pacific strategy inclusive of security, economics, and values. On the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” he was a trailblazer, who gained credit for leadership more consistent than the US provided. In the wider arena, his Russia gambit caused discord with the emerging US consensus, admittedly confused by Trump’s strategic malpractice.

Although in the one and a half years between Abe’s resignation and Putin’s massive assault on Ukraine there was no clear-cut departure from the Abe line to Putin, the mood had soured. The assumptions on which Abe’s policy had been built had all been exposed as erroneous. The only mystery was why they had prevailed for so long. The personal will of Abe was critical, but so too were engrained elements of the long search for “normal Japan.” Ironically, it was Abe’s boost to US relations and security thinking that drove Japan away from his “Russia illusion.”

The US response to Russia’s 2014 aggression in Ukraine may have been piecemeal and irresolute, but it contributed to a shift toward lumping China and Russia together as partners in threatening the international order, requiring a new alliance strategy to emphasize military and economic security as well as democratic values in the struggle with authoritarianism linked to communist legacies. What had appeared to emerge suddenly under Biden had been galvanizing in the aftermath of Russian aggression and interference in the US 2016 elections. Only in 2021-22 did Japan grasp this transformative force. Trump muddled strategic thinking, but Japan quickly grasped the Biden effect and was prepared to see Russia in a different light even before the Ukraine war.  The linkage of China and Russia mattered greatly in Japanese reasoning. The interlude of Abe wooing Putin had not stood in the way of change. Yet, it culminated two decades of shortsighted thinking about Russia.

Historical Background to 2012 for the Failure of the Territorial Talks
Given the absence of any military solution, Japan’s only hope to recover the four islands lost in 1945 was diplomacy. It proceeded on the basis of two key assets: 1) deep-seated belief that the cause was just, land never previously under Russian control had been seized unjustly after Japan’s surrender; and 2) confidence that Japan’s economic strength would be a lure to Russia, given its technological backwardness and the need to develop its Far East. In the 1990s these assets appeared most advantageous. However, in the 2000s-2010s the Russian energy export and national identity surge did not work in Japan’s favor. Leadership of the governing LDP could have tested Putin’s intentions in full awareness of the diminishing odds of a deal or could have made concessions in a desperate attempt to convince Putin. They chose the latter course first in the early 2000s and doubled down on it through the years 2012-19.

Successive Japanese prime ministers did not want to sign a peace treaty to conclude WWII without reaffirming the position that Japan had lost the islands unjustly. It did not need Russia to accept that judgment, but it also would not concede to Russia on the claim that the islands had been stolen from Japan. Agreeing to disagree on this fundamental point was assumed to be the common denominator for a deal. This compromise and the transfer of islands were the prerequisites Japan’s leaders had deemed essential for considering Japan-Russia relations normalized. The key was to find neutral language to bridge differences in national claims. Japanese did not anticipate any loss to their national identity. Yet, that is precisely what Putin demanded with little rebuttal.

If Japan continued to regard the four islands as illegally occupied and to seek their return, this did not exclude agreeing to language that talked of “belonging” rather than “returning.” Yet, Moscow was insistent on more. In response, Japanese leaders kept their public remarks vague. As talks with Russia reached a critical point on October 3, 2016, Foreign Minister Kishida, answering a question at a Diet hearing, asserted that Japan’s basic position in the negotiations is supportive of two stages, but when pressed, he (Abe as well) intentionally responded vaguely and halted the discussion. This ambiguity can be traced back to 2000.

Japan’s traditional phraseology for the lost territory had confronted the insistence of Russian officials that for progress in bilateral talks to be achieved, different vocabulary was required. In 1993 for the Tokyo Declaration, Japan dropped the word “return” and accepted wording about “belonging.” Following the Tokyo Declaration specifying that they would conclude a peace treaty which resolved the question of to whom four islands belong, in the Irkutsk statement of 2001 and the 2002 Japan-Russia action statement, the Tokyo Declaration was treated as the foundation for a peace treaty. Switching to the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956, the narrative focus changed. It did so through one-sided concessions by Abe personally or his Kantei, not approved by the Diet. These were not compromises matched by Russian concessions conducive to a breakthrough. In spite of Putin recognizing the 1956 statement, no progress at all occurred in the territorial negotiations.

From 2000, entering the Putin era, the 1993 “Tokyo Declaration” was recognized as the bilateral agreement on the basis of which could be resolved the existing territorial question of four islands. While Putin at first recognized this himself, he ignored the document after 2005 and tried to deny the very existence of a territorial question between the two countries. Later, however, the Japanese side became caught up in the illusion of a “pro-Japan Putin,” who had spoken, as a judo lover, of “hikiwake” (a draw) viewed by journalists and many ordinary citizens as well as Abe himself who held 27 summits with Putin, as a soft line that could lead to a breakthrough, resulting in the recovery of two islands. From that statement in 2012, Japanese sought ways to satisfy Putin.

Earlier, there were some signs of abandonment of Japan’s longstanding position. In July 2000, just before Putin first visited Japan as president, the secretary general of the LDP, Nonaka Hiromu, spoke in favor of separating the territorial question from a peace treaty, contradicting the Japanese foreign ministry position over decades. Not only were officials stunned, but so too were Russian and foreign policy experts. Kommersant the next day covered his remarks, saying he regarded peaceful relations with Russia as more important than the Kuril Islands, fueling optimism that a peace treaty could be reached with no need to deal with islands. In 1956 Japan could have had the same deal, critics said. It caused confusion in the Russia policy of Japan. Uncertain too was what “peace” would mean. How would Japan, geostrategically, economically, or in national identity, benefit by setting aside its deep-seated, principled position? No one explained that nor did Russia offer any clarity regarding what new type of relationship it was proposing.

Also, around the time of Putin’s 2000 visit, voices were heard, centering on a group of LDP politicians, calling for diplomacy emphasizing only the 1956 Joint Declaration, much in line with the 2018 agreement to accelerate negotiations over a peace treaty based on this declaration. Criticism of “one-dimensional diplomacy” did not lead to a balanced approach. Aware of these developments, Putin during his September 2000 visit recognized the validity of the 1956 statement, although nothing was put in writing at that time. For the first time since 1960, when Moscow had rejected that statement, using the pretext of the Japan-US security treaty, it was reaffirmed. In 2001 in Russia the misunderstanding spread that “Japan had shifted its policy to the return of two islands.”

A separate question can be raised about whether Japan should have agreed to such a concession in return for some significant geopolitical payoff. Some anticipated that Putin in 2000 was pro-West, eager to partner with Japan in “reentering Asia,” and a reformer intent on a long-term close linkage with Japan. There were signs to the contrary in his background, but Japan, along with the West, could have patiently tested his intentions. Rushing toward fundamental concessions did not elicit Russian concessions except for hints of its willingness to consider an earlier agreement suggestive of a two-island deal. The illusion of multiple benefits to the politician who cut the deal prevailed instead.

Three unfounded arguments drove optimism about what could be achieved by the big concessions some in Japan sought. One, this would be a two-stage process; thus, Japan would be likely to regain all four islands over time. There was no indication of any such prospect from Russia. Two, Russia was poised to be a close and trusted partner, when its policies were instead backtracking away from earlier Yeltsin ones. Finally, Japan had a lot to gain from a breakthrough with Russia, as if an autonomous foreign policy was within reach despite the growing signs of polarity between Washington and Beijing. Together, these arguments suggested a serious misreading of current realities.

In March 2001 the Japan-Russia “Irkutsk Statement” formed the basis of the recent peace treaty negotiations. Prime Minister Mori and Putin agreed to take the 1956 statement as a starting point, and the Tokyo Declaration as a base of negotiation on the territorial problem. In January 2003 Prime Minister Koizumi and Putin recognized the results of 1956, 1993, 2001, and other prior statements as bases of negotiation on the territorial question. Putin recognized the Tokyo Declaration on both occasions, acknowledging that the status of all four islands remained unresolved and that a bilateral territorial question existed.

Within the LDP, however, Russia policy was in utter confusion, as can be shown by the aftermath of Nonaka’s statement. Meanwhile, Putin was hardening his stance, as on September 27, 2005 when in a state broadcast he asserted that the Southern Kurils (called in Japan the Northern Territories) became Russian territory as a result of victory in WWII, and this was even recognized in international law. “We have no intention to have discussions on this issue.” However, the Japanese government did not take a stance in strong opposition to the remarks by Putin that rejected several agreements between Japan and Russia. That was because two months later in November Putin was scheduled to visit Japan. If there had been a stern response, it was feared that he would cancel or take a harsher tone. A pattern was set: Putin did not have to create a conducive atmosphere; Japan was obliged to do so.

In the November 2005 Putin visit to Japan, Putin refused to recognize prior agreements on the territorial issue, insisting that economic ties are obstructed by the absence of a peace treaty. He showed an interest only in economic cooperation. From that time on, the president of Russia, its foreign minister, and all of the members of the State Duma denied the existence of an unresolved Russia-Japan territorial issue. In July 2020 through the revised constitution, it became a criminal offense to advocate dividing Russia’s territory. These circumstances were not propitious for conducting talks aimed at recovering any of the islands.

In early February 2004 former prime minister Nakasone Yasuhiro and former ambassadors to Russia as part of a group of 25, including Hakamada, expressed concern that enthusiasm in Japan had shifted from resolving the territorial question to economic cooperation. On the Russian side, at the time, the misunderstanding was widespread that Japan’s basic position was to set aside the peace treaty issue in order to push ahead with economic cooperation. Looking down on Japan from the position of “great power psychology,” reviving its confidence through increased energy prices, Russia saw that Japan’s resource and energy minister had visited Russia five times in 2003, as reported in the Russian media. Russia was emboldened, as diplomacy faltered while Japan struggled with a revolving door of prime ministers, but Abe prioritized Russia.

Abe’s Failed Russia Initiative from 2012
In March 2012 just before his election to a third term as president, at a press conference Putin spoke of a possible compromise “hikiwake,” by inviting diplomatists of both countries and instructing them to begin (“hajime”) negotiations. Yet, as Hakamada earlier observed, the most important part of Putin’s remarks was omitted in an article by the Asahi reporter who had queried Putin, took credit for the scoop, and had interpreted his use of judo jargon as proof Putin was “pro-Japan.” Putin had hinted too that he rejected the Tokyo Declaration and had made clear that he set the condition for the transfer of two islands that it could only occur after the conclusion of a peace treaty. In March 2012 Putin interpreted the earlier agreement for the transfer of two islands as actually not signifying the transfer of sovereignty. Many in Japan ignoring this point, interpreted the “transfer of two islands” to mean the transfer of sovereignty over these islands. Thus, optimism was based on incorrectly understanding what Putin had said and his real intentions. This mistake reverberated over seven years as Putin’s true intentions were repeatedly overlooked.

If Abe’s personal words prioritized the territorial issue over economic relations, his advisors in theKantei—Imai Naoya, Seko Hiroshige, and Hasegawa Eiichi—who wielded great authority and guided policy toward Russia, were all from METI, a background that put the focus more on economic relations than on national sovereignty. People of that background tended to believe Putin’s words concerning Russia, arguing that if economic and other cooperation advances, increasing trust relations between the two countries, as had occurred between China and Russia, even the peace treaty issue would be resolved.

Some argued that Abe was increasingly driven by realism, seeking to drive a wedge between Russia and China. The former Russian school of the foreign ministry was the repository of realist thinking, alert to Russia’s trajectory of foreign relations, to Sino-Russian relations, and to the hardening consensus of US, EU, and NATO thinking at odds with Abe’s approach. Influential on Russian policymaking in the Kantei were Suzuki Muneo and former prime minister Mori Yoshiro, who in February 2013 visited Moscow as Abe’s emissary. Mori, adopting Putin’s language on the EU and NATO, could not understand how the EU in 2012 had been given the Nobel Peace Prize. There was virtually nobody around Abe to expose the cynical geopolitical thinking and state views harkening to imperial Russia. This resulted in continued belief in illusions, wishful thinking at odds with realist assessments of Putin’s rising threat.

In May 2016 in Sochi Abe proposed a new approach to Putin, an 8-point economic cooperation plan, and said that now he has a completely different conception from what had preceded, leading Russian leaders to believe that he had set aside the territorial question to make economic cooperation the focus of Japan’s policy. Since economic ties were Putin’s biggest interest, Abe’s 2016 reconceptualization was welcomed. Yet this did not mean that Putin respected Abe or that personal warmth or trust had developed.

At the main session of the September 12, 2018 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Putin stated to Abe in front of Xi Jinping and others that they should sign a peace treaty by year end without preconditions. This meant that the condition of resolving the territorial question no longer is on the table, and the territorial issue no longer exists. Even in the Soviet period this sort of demeaning speech to Japan was absent, former deputy foreign minister Kunadze asserted.1 Yet, Abe took this challenge as an opportunity, one more time giving Putin the benefit of the doubt no matter how much Putin kept defying Abe’s stated hopes.

Abe was so determined to strike a deal with Putin he repeatedly made one-sided concessions, receiving nothing in return. On many occasions, such as the September 2018 Eastern Economic Forum, Putin slighted Abe or put him in an uncomfortable position rather than seeking to build a constructive mood for making progress. In the language used to describe the islands (dropping the notion of their “return”), the agreement considered the foundation for talks (1956, not 1993 as Japanese had argued), and the number of islands to be sought as part of a deal (two not four), Abe yielded ground. Resentment was building in the Japanese media and political circles as well as the bureaucracy.

Despite the façade of close “Shinzo-Vladimir” relations, it can be said that Putin at heart looked down on Abe, as surmised from the way the other Russian officials spoke and the lack of follow-through on issues such as a “special system” on the islands for joint economic activity. To Russia, the only possibility was to proceed under Russian law. Trust could not be built on such disregard for seeking common ground.

On resolving the territorial question, the Putin administration had indicated prior to the shift in Japan’s policy that it had no intention to proceed. This was well understood by Japanese specialists of international relations and Russia specialists considerably earlier; politicians and the media grasped it too. However, Abe’s Kantei decided to ignore this reality and continue with its policy, even treating the November 14, 2019 summit of Abe and Putin in Singapore as a success, but by then Japanese politicians and experts as well as many citizens saw that it was hopeless to expect a deal. Eventually, Abe himself recognized that the policy toward Russia had failed. In his resignation speech in September 2020, he conveyed how his Russia policy had left him queasy with regret.2 

Kishida’s Change of Direction
Kishida Fumio served under Abe in 2007 as minister for Okinawa and the Northern Territories and from 2012 as foreign minister for about five years (an unusually long time), even doubling as defense minister for a time in 2017. He is intimately familiar with the history of the Northern Territories question. Repeatedly, Kishida met Lavrov as his negotiating partner, sitting across from a hard-liner whose remarks on relations with Japan often seemed counter to the spirit of dialogue. Kishida had, thus, long wrestled with the frustrations of Russian refusals and insults.

Oddly, decisions at summits put follow-through in the hands of Kishida and Lavrov, who had no say in them and represented bureaucracies with great skepticism. Joint press conferences of the two foreign ministers exposed their inability to find common ground. On September 21, 2015 in Moscow Lavrov’s message to Kishida was “Talk of the Northern Territories is not the object,” completely negating the earlier statement of Kishida on the exchanges held on the Northern Territories question. After their 4 ½ hour meeting, Kishida’s words were contradicted by Lavrov, who, in response to a question about the territorial question, insisted that they had not even discussed that issue. At the end of a joint news conference, Lavrov tried to shake hands, Kishida stood him up. Known as amiable, Kishida had shown his unhappiness with Lavrov’s statements. Kishida later explained that half of the time had been spent on the peace treaty issue, i.e., the territorial question. The scene is captured in a photo with the caption, “Foreign Minister Kishida Ignoring Foreign Minister Lavrov’s Extended Hand.”3

Prior to becoming prime minister Kishida was deeply dissatisfied with Russia’s position on a peace treaty, but he could not speak out as Abe’s foreign minister and was hesitant just afterwards given his role in the administration. It took a transformative event in 2022 for him to say unequivocally his point of view, albeit without looking back on how policy had been misdirected. He broke sharply with the past. The legacy of his dealings with Lavrov could not have been far below the surface.

When Kishida became prime minister in October 2021, US warnings of Russian preparations for a large-scale invasion of Ukraine were already being heard. Meanwhile, disappointment was palpable in Tokyo over the way Russia was treating Japan, especially the dashed hopes over the loss of any prospect for the return of any islands. As the official seemingly in charge of the talks, Kishida could not readily repudiate the past policy. A transformative event made it possible for him to take a strong stand.

The backlash against Abe’s approach was building already under Abe and became clearer under his successor, Suga Yoshihide. One by one, the illusions behind it were dispelled. There were no territorial deals to be made, no prospect of driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, and clearly no boost to Asianism by wooing Putin. With the US security establishment firm in its warnings about Putin, splitting with Japan’s ally posed a rising cost. Kishida stood solidly with the US and the EU.

On the positive side, Tokyo in 2021 grew more confident of three geopolitical conditions, which had earlier aroused some concern: US resoluteness in resisting China and standing behind Taiwan; the Quad as an emerging framework narrowing China’s options; and Japan’s own consensus for defending its interests. A turning point was within reach, brought into the open by the Ukraine war and accelerated by Biden’s strategic messaging both before the Ukraine situation looked perilous and as he rallied nations behind economic security focused on Russia.

A critical factor in 2020-22 was the growing consensus that Taiwan had become the central security concern. Abe had long led the way, raising concern about a violent takeover by the PRC of Taiwan. Out of office, he made statements such as that “a Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency” and that “Japan, the US, and other allies must create a situation that forces China to give up seizing Taiwan by force.”4 Not to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine would have repercussions if Japan sought to rally countries to prepare for coercion against Taiwan.

The Impact of the Ukraine War
The February 4, 2022, Sino-Russian statement attacked the protection of democracy and human rights as a pretext for interfering in the name of values in the sovereignty of states. Yet, the real interference and blow to humanity was what Russian troops did in Ukraine. Japan swung sharply to the side of standing up for values in these circumstances. By joining so fully with China, Russia alarmed Japan about its trend of thought.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine endangered the existing international order, not just the West. It was taken as a threat by Japan, Australia, and others as well as by NATO. If Russia could do this in Europe, what could occur in Asia? The war reverberated in warnings about China’s behavior. This left no room for Japan to stand on the sidelines. After all, the criticism leveled by Beijing and Moscow against US alliances in Asia echoed that against NATO in Europe. Linkages between the two threats to the world order were unmistakable. Instead of treating Russia as a possible check on China, as Abe had done, it was now seen as a model for Chinese attacks. Parallels were drawn with Taiwan, the Senkakus, and the South China Sea. Japanese now saw the invasion of Ukraine as a roadmap for attacks that China could soon launch in maritime Asia.

What were Kishida’s options? The US-led international community was taking a hard line against Russia’s threatening policies, and in February 2022 harshly opposed Putin’s war. China and North Korea were clearly on Russia’s side. Failing to break fully from Abe’s outreach to Putin not only would damage ties to the United States and its European allies, it would threaten Japan’s credibility in Asia in resisting aggression. Also, inside Japan, led by Abe, the constituency for outreach to Russia was no longer resistant to standing firm against it, apart from a few outliers. The total break from Abe’s diplomacy to Putin was the only possible course.

The May 23 summit in Tokyo was unlike any previous Japan-US summit due in large part to the Ukraine war. Biden explicitly linked the prospect of an attack by the PRC on Taiwan with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and he made it clear that in the Taiwan case the US would intervene militarily, although aides walked this back. There is ample reason to believe that this commitment in place of “strategic ambiguity” was welcomed by Kishida. Without the war in Europe and China’s close association with Russia, not only would Biden have likely been more hesitant, but Kishida would have been more concerned about domestic backlash. Unlike traditional “gaiatsu,” viewed as Washington pressing Tokyo to overcome its reluctance, Kishida showcased his own big role.

Kishida had recognized that the prior policy had totally collapsed, that Putin had taken the attitude of a strong Russia and been humiliating what he perceived as a weak Japan, and that Abe in agreeing in November 2018 to abandon the Tokyo Declaration in favor of the 1956 Joint Declaration had done so without the approval of the Diet or even the LDP, setting back the peace talks by decades without a payoff. With Abe’s resignation regrets about his failure with Russia, many Japanese, who had not paid close attention to earlier signs of how the talks were breaking down, could not help but to recognize it.

Abe’s faction of the LDP, the largest, continues the realist line set forth by Kishi, while Kishida’s more liberal Kochikai faction has resisted the recent surge of discussion about nuclear weapons, stimulated by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Abe has urged that Japan, similar to Germany, should be host to nuclear weapons. Kishida from Hiroshima, which was the victim of the atomic bomb, opposes this. In spite of the world’s concern about Russia’s nuclear use linked to Ukraine, he supports expanded deterrence through the United States and advocates a “world without nuclear weapons” as an ideal of the future.  On Russia policy it is Kishida who is realist and Abe who proved to be the idealist. As seen as early as his dealings with Lavrov as foreign minister, Kishida stood up to Russia, knowing full well Russia’s severe posture to Japan and the difficulties Japan had encountered in the negotiations.

Kishida, however, did not go as far as some desired in opposing Russia. In the Diet there continues to be criticism of the lack of clarity in Kishida’s Russia policy. For example, on February 15, when the G7 countries were in a strong crisis mood toward Russia over Ukraine, Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa held an on-line “Japan-Russia economic conference” with the Russian government, and on February 25, a day after Russia’s attack began, in response to a Diet query about whether the Japan-Russia committee on trade and economics and the position of minister for economic cooperation with Russia should be abolished, the Kishida administration did not concur. Moreover, after US and European firms announced their withdrawal from Sakhalin1, Sakhalin2, and Arctic LNG2, the Japanese government took a restrained position concerning the withdrawal of Japanese firms. In advance of the July Upper House elections and for other domestic reasons, the main concern is guaranteeing domestic energy. On June 28-29, under broiling heat, Japan faced a warning of an energy shortage. No complete cutoff of Russian economic ties is occurring, similar to the EU. On Ukraine, Japan cannot, according to its constitution, provide arms assistance, but it also has not offered a lot of financial assistance. This negativity may be related to the fact its $13 billion in assistance in the Gulf War did not manage to garner international praise.
Japanese strategic thinkers are now refocused on conditions for the reorganization of the postwar order, not as an external force to be imposed on Tokyo, but as an evolving situation demanding Japanese creativity and urgency.5 NATO and FOIP are linked as the conceptual foundation for a new order with security in the forefront. Given that the Ukraine war has destroyed the old order, rebuilding is necessary. Yet that must begin with awareness thar China has for years posed a challenge to that order as well, leading to a period of transformation, which Russia, under the protection of China, has accelerated in 2022.

Japanese recognize that China is wedded to Russia, an indispensable partner in the struggle against the United States. The fact that China has not criticized Russia about the war in Ukraine is conclusive proof of this bond and of China’s intentions to behave similarly in the Indo-Pacific. Given the fact that Russia equals China in this security reasoning, there is no thought that Washington should forego its role in Europe. Rather, new inter-regional linkages must follow, boosting the role of Japan and Germany both. The US must look both ways simultaneously, with the two wings.6

The Ukraine war brought into the open strategic thinking about China’s threat to attack Taiwan. Responding firmly to Russia, Japan was sending three key messages: 1) to Washington, the alliance was resolute in the face of dangers to the international order, whether in Europe or Asia; 2) to NATO, Asia and Europe are one inseparable arena, which must be defended together; and 3) to China, the separation of economics and security is over, and pushback was building through economic security. Having wooed Putin with the argument that Russia in Asia is distinct from Russia in Europe, Japan made an about-face, as it did to Russia.

On June 10 at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Kishida’s keynote address both carried forward the Fukuda Doctrine and added new Asianism, stressing the need for the states of Southeast Asia as well as Japan to cooperate with Europe and the United States. He said that international society is at a crossroads, its foundation having been shaken by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. With the very foundations of the international order being shaken by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the international community now stands at a historic crossroads. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine occurred. No country or region in the world can shrug this off as “someone else’s problem.” It is a situation that shakes the very foundations of the international order, which every country and individual gathered here today should regard as their own affair. Japan intends to build up international society in Asia, taking the initiative, despite the complicated relations of some Asian countries with China and Russia, and even with Europe and the United States.7

Given Japan’s policy toward Russia until recently, it is hard to imagine that it now champions the NATO Indo-Pacific Cooperation Council proposed for the Madrid late June summit.8 The urgent lesson of the Ukraine war is to cooperate across regions on missile defense, cyber security, space, and other cutting-edge arenas. Economics and security are intertwined. For the US simultaneously to face two fronts it requires Japan as well as Germany to play a much larger security role. Whereas in the two decades of crisis leading to 1945, they were the antagonists, in the anticipated coming two decades of crisis they are the indispensable keys, as US allies, to preventing war. The world is facing the brink. This was the message resounding in Japan on the eve of the Madrid summit.

For the first time a Japanese prime minister attended the NATO summit. While intensified criticism and sanctions against Russia was the main theme, which Kishida supported, China was also considered in the same light. The FOIP, which Abe had initiated and also the Quad were on the docket as part of all-around security cooperation between Europe and the US and some countries in Asia. As the host of the coming 2023 G7, Kishida took a clear stance to positively promote this cooperation.

For Japan, the Madrid summit was seen as the biggest turning point for NATO since the end of the Cold War, not least of all because the new security concept included China for the first time. As stated by Nikkei, “Borders are disappearing from the world map of security. On 23 June, just before Prime Minister Fumio Kishida left for Europe, Chinese warplanes repeatedly and persistently entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ). The Eagle 16 bomber and the Roar 6, a strategic bomber with nuclear strike capability, appeared south of the Taiwan Strait. At the NATO summit, which he attended for the first time, the Prime Minister appealed that “Ukraine could be the East Asia of tomorrow.” The time has passed when Japan can fully entrust its security to the US. At the NATO summit, the Prime Minister stressed that the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific cannot be separated.9

Sankei’s coverage reinforced the same points. The issue of China was consistently stressed at the G7 Summit in Germany and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit in Spain. China not only attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China Seas, but also takes joint military steps with Russia, which has invaded Ukraine. The Prime Minister repeatedly called on Western leaders to unite and share the perception that “Ukraine may be the East Asia of tomorrow.” The Prime Minister raised the issue of China at every opportunity, including in summit discussions and bilateral meetings. He also mentioned China’s expanding influence over Pacific island states and the need for cooperation between Japan, the US, Australia and other countries.

In response to the Prime Minister’s appeal, some leaders said that the central issue for the autumn G20 summit would be China, not just Ukraine. The summit statement also included the importance of human rights issues in China and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The Prime Minister has continued to lay the groundwork by sounding the alarm on China’s developments through diplomatic opportunities such as the Asian Security Conference (Shangri-La Dialogue) in Singapore in June. This time, those efforts bore fruit, with a senior Foreign Ministry official expressing relief that “there were no problems with references to China at the summit.” Meanwhile, at a press conference on 28 June, the Prime Minister said of a possible summit meeting with President Xi Jinping: “Dialogue is important. We would like to consider concrete talks.” The prime minister, who is a “representative of Asia,” has a great responsibility to work with other countries to deter China’s behavior and to build stability in East Asia.

Looking back at the period from 2012 to 2020, we see how thinking about Russia proved to be shortsighted. Three causes of the awakening can be identified. First, the realization became unmistakable that the Russian side would not return any islands, and Japan’s hopes for that had been in vain. Second, the possibility of driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing looked hopeless, completely dashing even the slight hopes that Russia would not double down on its China ties. And third, Japan’s coordination with the United States had solidified to the point that security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific could no longer be totally separate from a broad security framework involving European states, considering Russian as well as China threats to peace.

In February 2022 the decade of Japanese wooing of Russia came to an end. It had been on life support since Abe’s resignation in September 2020 and earlier had faced several life-threatening challenges from the Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014, to the failed Putin trip to Japan in late 2016 despite the hype, to the September 2018 Putin “surprise” offer at the Eastern Economic Forum, which was essentially a call to surrender with no territorial return. Yet, only in the extreme circumstances of 2022 did Japanese recognize its demise.

Behind the bonhomie of “Shinzo-Vladimir” exchanges, a stark reality could not be brushed aside. Japan was desperately trying a last gasp approach to regaining territory and forestalling a geopolitical nightmare, while also reviving, against all odds, a dream of Asianism. As bipolarity deepened, Abe clung to the “Russia card” long past its expiration date.

Another message was sent by Japan’s new posture toward Russia. The days of compromise on national identity were over. Abe’s one-sided concessions to Putin left a bad odor with nothing to show for them. The more conciliatory Japan had been, the more demanding Russia grew. The sacrifice of principle had been for no benefit. It follows that alliance with the United States over shared values is more secure at this time, as Asianism has been clarified as a joint venture with Japan’s close ally.   

1. “In Surprise Move, Putin Proposes Signing Peace Pact with Japan This Year,” Radio Free Europe, September 12, 2018.

2. Joshua Walker and Hidetoshi Azuma, “Shinzo Abe’s Unfinished Deal with Russia,” War on the Rocks, September 11, 2020.

3. “After the Joint News Conference, Foreign Minister Kishida Ignoring Foreign Minister Lavrov, Who Had Tried to Extend His Hand,” photo: Tokyo Shimbun, taken by Tokiwa Shin (used with the permission of Tokiwa)

4. Global Times, June 6, 2022.

5. Gaiko, Vol. 23, May/June 2022.

6. Iwama Yoko, Gaiko, Vol. 23, May/ June 2022.

7. Tokiwa Shin, “Roshia ryodo ‘gidai to sezu,’” Tokyo Shimbun, September 23, 2015.

8. “Making the case for NATO Indo-Pacific cooperation: A new pan-EU-Asia alliance could help counter growing threats posed by North Korea, China and even Russia,” The Japan Times, May 11, 2022.

9. Kohara Junnosuke, “安保地図から消える国境 NATO、冷戦後最大の節目, 中国・台湾,” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, June 30, 2022.

10. Tamura Tatsuhiko and Nagahara Shingo,“各国首脳、中露接近で認識共有 首相の呼びかけ結実,” Sankei Shimbun, June 30, 2022.  

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