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Ukraine-Japan: How to Ensure Efficient Global Partnership?

Alyona Getmanchuk expert

Perhaps, the past six years have been the best period in the history of Ukraine-Japan relations. However, the bilateral cooperation could have been even better if there had not been the Japanese purposeful policy of resolving the territorial issue with Russia and the Ukrainian attempts of dubious deals with China.

To date, the Ukraine-Japan dialogue is most influenced by Ukraine’s relations with China on the one hand and Japan’s relations with Russia on the other. Both Japan and Ukraine have their own arguments for the development of relations between Ukraine and China, as well as between Japan and Russia. If Ukraine seeks to find and establish a dialogue with China to potentially deter Russia with Beijing’s help, Japan seeks to maintain dialogue and cooperation with Russia, offering itself as an important option for cooperation with Asia outside China. At the same time, China is an important economic and trade partner for both Japan and Ukraine – the biggest among bilateral partners.

The Japanese side is concerned about the possible rapprochement of Ukraine and China for several reasons. One of them relates to the possible transfer of technology from Ukraine to the Chinese side. That is why the actions of the Motor Sich enterprise are a test case for bilateral relations. The Japanese partners believe that Motor Sich’s failure to fall into Chinese hands – given the close coordination in the military and defence spheres between China and Russia – primarily meets the national security interests of Ukraine itself and only then of Japan.

Issue of Russian Federation

Kremlin RussiaUkraine’s intentions to use China as a deterrent in Russia’s war against Ukraine by adjusting Beijing’s position if not to support Ukraine’s position, then at least to abstain (in particular, during the UN Security Council votes important for Ukraine) do not seem convincing enough for Japanese partners. In general, no matter how hard Ukraine tries to balance, any strengthening of cooperation with China, especially in the areas of security and defence, will hit Ukraine’s relations with Japan.

At the same time, a dialogue between Russia and Japan on the return of the Northern Territories in terms of a possible “blurring” of Tokyo’s position on sanctions could not help but raise a concern in Ukraine. The concerns were logical given the principled resolution of the issue for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who promised to return the territories at his father’s grave. However, even if Abe remained in office until the end of his term in 2021, Ukraine’s worries would likely be in vain, as a consensus has been formed in Tokyo that Putin is not really ready to resolve the issue and only uses it as a “bait” for Japanese partners to receive more financial support and investment from the Japanese side.

The recent amendments to the Russian Constitution have become one of the proofs for the Japanese side that Russia is not ready to resolve the issue. Abe’s dialogue with Putin, who met a record 27 (!) times, began to arouse skepticism and discontent in Japanese society.

Japanese experts generally agree that incumbent Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga regards settlement of the issue with Russia not as a matter of historical mission as much as it was for his predecessor. Moreover, it is noticeable that Prime Minister Suga focuses more on domestic and regional policy issues – with an emphasis on the development of relations with Asian countries in accordance with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.

Russian Factor

It should be understood that any other Japanese government, even if it does not have any illusions about resolving the issue of the Northern Territories, will tend to continue a dialogue with Russia and take into account the Russian factor when making decisions that concern Ukraine one way or another. Firstly, because the issue of the Northern Territories will remain one of the important priorities of Japanese policy, regardless of the name of the head of government.

Secondly, Japan does not want to head for any confrontation with Russia, fearing to open a “third front” in addition to the two already existing – China and North Korea. That is why Japanese security documents contain information about threats from China and North Korea, not from Russia, although Tokyo perceives it as a potential threat, especially in interaction with Beijing. At the same time, Kyiv should take into account that the priority of resolving the issue of the Northern Territories in the Japanese case is not necessarily the same as the priority of cooperation with Russia as such.

The lobbying efforts of the so-called Russianists – Japanese supporters of the Russian Federation who are trying to promote at various levels the priority of cooperation with Russia and the idea of its “special way,” thus justifying the Kremlin’s actions in the world – are noticeable, but they have their limits. And Japanese business, which considered the Russia market attractive for many years, is quite sensitive to political risks and relies primarily on its presence in the US and other Western markets.

It is noteworthy that Japan-Russia trade reached only 2% in 2019, while trade between Japan and the United States amounted to 15%, Japan-EU – 12%, and Japan-China – also 12%.

Changes in Ukraine

It is also important to note that the situation has changed in Ukraine. Ukraine itself is currently in the process of searching for peace and an acceptable solution to the Russian-occupied territories – to a certain extent, Zelensky applies some elements tested during the premiership of Abe, clearly prioritising the search for a solution to the issue of the occupied territories in a dialogue with Russia.

In this context, the Russian factor can be not only separating but also uniting in the dialogue between Kyiv and Tokyo in the sense that the parties could share the most significant conclusions and lessons learned which are important to take into account in negotiations with the Kremlin.

International Relations with United States

USA flagThe American factor will be important in the context of Ukraine-Japan cooperation. Japanese diplomatic and expert circles expected the arrival of the Joe Biden Administration with restrained optimism, as well as a return to traditional American diplomacy that is more understandable to Tokyo, in which the issue of international alliances, including the US-Japan Alliance, plays an important role. In addition, as Abe’s experience has shown, even the friendliest relations with Trump (Abe had the best relations with Trump among all world leaders for some time) do not guarantee the absence of unexpected challenges and problematic issues in bilateral dialogue (the sudden demand to increase the rent for the location of a US military base, the issue of increasing tariffs, etc.). The Japanese prefer a more predictable, traditional approach from their key partner and ally.

The next US administration’s relations with Russia may also indirectly affect the dialogue between Kyiv and Tokyo (for example, one of the reasons for the cancellation of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan during the presidency of Barack Obama was the negative reaction of the United States to the possibility of such a visit).

It is worth noting that, in contrast to the US-Ukraine relations, the US-Japan relations are based on a strong economic foundation as Japan is the third largest foreign investor in the US economy (after the UK and Canada) and ranks second among world’s countries (after the United Kingdom) by the number of jobs created in the United States.

Alyona Getmanchuk, Director of the New Europe Centre

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