Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has resulted in Japan’s security environment becoming as severe as it has ever been since the end of WWII. Tokyo worries a similar situation may arise in East Asia in the future.
While attention has been focused on China’s land grab in the Asia-Pacific region with a newly published map asserting Chinese sovereignty across swathes claimed by countries from India to Brunei, worrying developments have been bubbling up in the northwest Pacific, this time between Russia and Japan.
Many would be surprised to learn that officially, Japan and Russia are still at war. When Japan surrendered to the Allies in September 1945, thus ending the Second World War, Moscow and Tokyo never signed an official peace treaty. The reason for this lies in the territorial dispute between the two countries over four islands between the Northern Island of Japan, Hokkaido, and Russia’s Kuril Islands, which has bedevilled relations for the past 78 years.
Soviet troops captured the four Japanese islands in the final days of WWII and Moscow has repeatedly refused to hand them back. President Vladimir Putin insisted in January 2019 that any deal to end the territorial dispute with Japan would need public backing. A state-funded poll the following month revealed that an overwhelming majority, 96% of the 11,345 people over the age of 18 who inhabit the island chain, rejected the prospect of being transferred to Japan. Critics say that this kind of majority is in line with most polls conducted by Moscow.
One of the disputed Russian-held islands is a mere 2 miles off Japan’s northeast, complicating Tokyo’s efforts to concentrate its forces elsewhere to balance China and North Korea. As Russia uses the Sea of Okhotsk as a staging base for its Pacific Fleet, the islands give Moscow a geopolitical chokehold over the region, probably the main reason why it will not surrender its land-grab. The area also contains fish, oil, gas, and rhenium, used in aerospace.
When the West embraced the newly democratised Russia in the 1990s, Japan remained hesitant and was the least enthusiastic country among the Group of Seven (G7) partners when Russia joined the framework in 1998, making it the G8. However, under the premiership of Shinzo Abe, Tokyo became committed to improving relations with Moscow in the hope of solving the territorial dispute. Abe’s overtures to Russia didn’t end after Russia’s illegal and unilateral annexation of Crimea in March 2014, making Japan arguably, and somewhat ironically, the least willing country when the G7 subsequently voted to eject Russia from the Group. Japan subsequently imposed only a nominal set of sanctions on Russia in a bid to keep the window of opportunity open for progress during peace treaty negotiations.
Abe argued that, in addition to addressing the territorial dispute, improving relations with Russia was also important due to the rise of China in the strategic landscape of northeast Asia. He wanted to use Moscow as leverage against Beijing, or at least try to prevent Russia and China from forging a united front against Japan, based on historical, territorial, and other issues. Abe’s efforts to improve relations with Moscow were, in fact, part of Japan’s China policy.
In hindsight, of course, the idea of using Russia as a bargaining tool against China was almost illusionary. To Moscow, China is far more important and consequential than Japan. Any thought of Russia being prepared to sacrifice its relations with China for the sake of improving relations with Japan is simply pie-in-the-sky. Abe’s somewhat optimistic views were partly based on Russia’s behaviour in Asia being more peaceful and benign than its actions in Syria or Ukraine.
Up until the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a blatant violation of international law, Tokyo had remained cautious about taking a hard line against Russia. The war changed everything. Shortly after the invasion, Shinzo Abe, a polarising figure in Japanese politics who had stood down two years earlier, was assassinated while delivering a campaign speech before the 10 July Upper House elections. He had earlier expressed his shock by Russia’s brutality in Ukraine and had already changed Japan’s position, supporting the decision by the Kishida government to take a tough position and impose sanctions on Moscow.
Fumio Kishida, considered a “safe pair of hands” by Japan’s electorate saw two reasons for Tokyo’s tough position on Russia. First, the sheer scale of Russia’s actions in Ukraine surpasses all previous misdemeanours, making it impossible for Japan to be indifferent. Second, Kishida saw the invasion as something presenting a direct challenge to Japan, repeatedly arguing “Ukraine today, maybe East Asia tomorrow”. This reflects the West’s view that if Ukraine is defeated, the next nations under threat would be Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic States.
Because of Tokyo’s self-imposed restrictions on arms exports, Japan’s assistance to Ukraine has largely been in the form of non-lethal equipment, like transport vehicles, bullet-proof vests, helmets, and medical equipment from the stocks of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces. Nevertheless, this has been invaluable to Kyiv as the total volume of aid committed, including financial assistance, reached $7.1 billion in March this year, making Japan one of Ukraine’s largest contributors.
This generosity has not gone unnoticed in Moscow. In June this year, the Kremlin renamed the commemoration of 3 September, the day after Japan’s surrender, as the “Day of Victory over Militaristic Japan”, an announcement that infuriated Tokyo. “The passage of this law could only stir anti-Japanese sentiment among the Russian people but may also lead to anti-Russian sentiment among Japanese people”, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu told a press conference the day after, calling the move “extremely regrettable”.
Russia’s war in Ukraine also appears to have had a rebalancing effect on its military capability facing Japan. In late 2020, Moscow positioned several S-300 surface-to-air missile systems on Iturup and Kunashir, two of the four disputed Kuril Islands. Recent Maxar images show that two systems are now missing, believed to have been repurposed in Russia’s western borders with Ukraine in preparations for an eventual attack.
This activity occurred a week after Ukraine’s military intelligence claimed to have destroyed a Russian S-400 missile defence system in occupied Crimea, something which Moscow is yet to comment on. It’s also believed that a number of old tanks and howitzers on the islands have been repaired and sent to Ukraine, while some residents of the four islands have been mobilised into the Russian army for service in Ukraine, where many have died.
Having only slowly woken up to the worsening realities of military competition in the region, Japan is now in its biggest military build-up since WWII. Last week, Japan’s defence ministry sought a record $53 billion in next year’s budget, aiming to double defence spending to 2% of gross domestic product by 2027. This drew an immediate response from former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chair of the Russian Security Council. “It is regrettable that the Japanese authorities are pursuing a course towards a new militarisation of the country”, the Russian TASS news agency reported him as saying. “Troop exercises are taking place near the Kuril Islands which seriously complicates the situation in the Asia-Pacific region”.
But who can blame Japan for wishing to defend itself, or even taking back land stolen by Russia? As Tokyo warns in its National Security Strategy, adopted last December: “Japan’s security environment is as severe and complex as it has ever been since the end of WWII. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has easily breached the very foundation of the rules that shape the international order. The possibility cannot be precluded that a similar serious situation may arise in the future in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in East Asia”.
Perhaps the authors of the Strategy had in mind a report written in the summer of 2021 and published by Newsweek the following year, which featured the emails of a whistleblower from the Russian Security Service (FSB), claiming that Russia was “quite seriously preparing for a localised military conflict with Japan”. The whistleblower detailed movements of electronic warfare helicopters targeting Japan, while Russia’s propaganda machine was also initiated with a huge push to label the Japanese as “Nazis”. In the end, “they sort of swapped out Japan for Ukraine”, Igor Sushko, the translator of the emails told Newsweek, before adding “Both of them right, they’re insane. It’s insanity”.
Few would disagree with that.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.