In the months since Russia invaded Ukraine, Japan’s diplomacy has been closely aligned with the G-7, but the Kishida Cabinet has also deepened its direct ties with Ukraine and its European neighbors. Prime Minister Kishida joined the April G-7 Leader’s Summit attended by President Biden. But equally important, Foreign Minister Hayashi attended the NATO Summit that followed a week later as a “partner” of the U.S.-led European alliance, a first for Tokyo. In June, Japan’s Prime Minister has been invited to join the NATO Leader’s meeting.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has propelled far greater strategic coordination between Japan and European nations. Japan’s European diplomacy has developed considerably since the 1990s, and in April 2013, NATO and Japan concluded an agreement to deepen their strategic partnership. Cooperation has included shared interests in maritime security, cyber, and nonproliferation, among other issues. Tokyo welcomed European attention through the United Nations to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but has been particularly happy to see Europe appreciate the importance of China’s rise and the changing balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. Britain and France have sent their navies to the region, historically a site of strategic interest for both, and have crafted Indo-Pacific strategies that emphasize global maritime stability norms. The EU has also developed its own Indo-Pacific strategy, and even Germany has demonstrated its interest in sustaining its ties with this this “free and open” maritime region.
Yet the Ukraine crisis has brought a whole new dimension of Japanese engagement with Europe. Japan as a member of the G-7 has participated fully in the growing list of sanctions against Russia’s decision makers and financial organizations. As of April 12, Japan has sanctioned 499 individuals and 38 organizations from Russia. Like Europe, Tokyo was initially reluctant to cut off energy ties, although Russia supplies far less to Japan than it does to Germany, for example. Concerned about unstable energy supply at home of LNG and crude oil (10 percent and 4 percent respectively supplied by Russia), Japan also worried that China might be the benefactor should Japanese industry abandon its investments in Sakhalin projects to Japan’s north. Nonetheless, after reports of war crimes as Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, Prime Minister Kishida denounced Russian behavior and announced an end to Japan’s imports of coal from Russia, which currently supplies 11 percent of Japan’s coal.
Japan has also responded to Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis. First, and perhaps easiest, has been Japan’s financial assistance: $200 million in humanitarian assistance for things such as health and medical care, food assistance and food security, and protection of displaced people, and $300 million in financial assistance loans. Second, with very little domestic criticism, the Kishida Cabinet offered military supplies to help Ukrainian defense forces. To be sure, this was protective gear and medical supplies and not lethal arms, but it was the first time Japan has offered military assistance to a country at war. Two Air Self Defense Force planes carried initial supplies, and the U.S. also offered to carry more. Finally, Japan has offered to resettle Ukrainians displaced by war, and to date, over 600 have taken up that offer. Finally, Japan has also offered assistance to those countries who are receiving Ukrainians fleeing the war, mostly women and children. Foreign Minister Hayashi traveled to Poland on April 2 to discuss Poland’s needs and to meet with Ukrainians who had fled their country.
There have been a few bumps, however. Recently, the head of the LDP’s Foreign Affairs Division, Masahisa Sato, called out a Twitter account identified as being associated with the Ukrainian government for its inclusion of Emperor Hirohito in a list of defeated fascists. Referring to the “problem video,” he said that he had “asked the European Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to take immediate action.” The Japanese government protested to the Ukrainian Ambassador in Tokyo who denied this was a government account, but the visual was amended and an apology issued. Furthermore, when the Ukrainian government released a thank you to the countries providing aid to Ukraine, Japan was not included, and the Japanese media were quick to pick up on it. The Foreign Minister clarified with the Ukrainian government that this thank you list was for countries that had provided military aid rather than humanitarian and financial assistance.
Perhaps the most notable shift for Japan is in its closer alignment with NATO. When the foreign minister attended the NATO meeting in April, he was clear about the linkage between the conflict in Europe and the security of the Indo-Pacific. After, Hayashi was direct about Japan’s interests.
During the NATO Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, I stated that based on discussions concerning the situation in Ukraine, it is not possible to speak about the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific region separately and that the participation of Asia-Pacific partners in the meeting clearly showed our solidarity and sent a strong message to the international community… that unilateral changes to the status quo by force are unforgivable no matter the region and that it is vitally important to maintain and develop the international order based on universal values in all regions for global peace and stability.
The inclusion of Kishida in the upcoming June meeting would signal that this cross-regional dialogue among U.S. allies might not be a one-off association for Tokyo, and instead reflects Japan’s effort to align itself with “like-minded” nations as it seeks to cope with an accelerating challenge to the liberal order. Indeed, Japanese diplomats have long worked the NATO channel to share perspectives on global security and on Japan’s own assessments of how best to defend against attempts to change the status quo by force.
As Japan supports collective efforts to defeat Russian aggression in Europe, it is also investing in a future European role in the region closer to home. Russia’s aggression has brought American allies together, and in addition to Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand have been actively engaged in both sanctioning Russia and aiding Ukraine. This major power aggression has shocked governments and publics alike in these democracies, and allied political leaders across the globe recognize the need to shore up their defenses and to cement ties with the United States. But it is not just their own defenses that worry them. The postwar order led by the United States seems seriously under threat, and no longer can one region see its security challenges without considering others. Just yesterday, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss noted that Europeans should act if aggression against Taiwan seemed likely. No doubt this expression of potential support should a similar crisis develop in the Indo-Pacific was most welcome in Tokyo.