Japan’s choice over Ukraine

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Japan’s choice over Ukraine

The author is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“I want to develop overall Japan-Russia relations including in energy cooperation.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s speech on the government policy at the beginning of the year was full of courtship to Russia. The Russia policy was full of positive phrases like “signing a peace treaty,” “negotiation” and “development,” though only one sentence on Korea followed: “I strongly demand appropriate responses based on the consistent position.”

With the goal of retrieving four Kuril Islands effectively under Russia’s control, Japan had maintained a conciliatory stance toward Russia. When Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Japan was reluctant to aggressively side with the West for a long time after the United States and Europe declared sanctions.

Then Japan showed a surprising “change of mind” for the ongoing Ukraine crisis. When America announced the first sanctions against Russia, Japan immediately followed with additional measures on Feb. 25, restricting semiconductor exports. On Feb. 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assets in Japan were frozen, and Japanese banks were excluded from the SWIFT financial network. Kishida elevated his criticism, saying, “Violence comes with a big price.”

Many analysts attribute Tokyo’s sudden change of attitude to China. A Japanese diplomatic source said, “The difference between now and the Crimean crisis is China’s rise. If Japan is passive in sanctions like the last time, there are concerns that it would give China an excuse to engage in a similar military action.”

Above all, Taiwan could be in danger if Japan doesn’t show determination. Japanese people seem to agree with its government’s sudden change of mind. In a poll, 61 percent of respondents said that Japan should keep up with the U.S. and Europe in response to Russia.

Japan moved the focus of its military strategy to checking on China on the premise of easing tensions with Russia. However, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Japan’s strong response, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun analyzed that “ripple effect on Japan’s future security strategy is expected.” If Russia is added as a threat to Japan along with China and North Korea, Japan’s military build-up may be more aggressive and bold under strong demand of the United States.

The war is shaking the structure of the international community. Each country is intensely contemplating how to survive the power game. I wonder what kind of “big picture” the Korean government is drawing now?

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