Japan imposed limited new financial sanctions yesterday on 40 individuals and two groups implicated in Russia's actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The sanctions attempted to walk a tightrope between appeasing the US and keeping alive hopes of settling a nearly seven decade-old territorial dispute with Russia, but it looks like Moscow has pushed Tokyo off the tightrope.
Prior to the Ukraine crisis, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had struck a conciliatory tone with Vladimir Putin in the hope of boosting ties and winning concessions from the Russian president on the sovereignty of three islands and a group of islets a stone's throw off Japan's north coast. The islands, which Tokyo refers to as the Northern Territories and Russia calls the Kurils, were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1945 and have been in Moscow's hands ever since.
According to Japanese media, Russia's Foreign Ministry announced after Japan's sanctions statement that it was postponing a meeting scheduled for late August between the two countries' deputy foreign ministers, during which the territorial dispute was to be discussed. A visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan, first proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a leader's meet during February's Sochi Olympics, now looks in doubt.
Russia's postponement of the August dialogue shows that it is willing to use the dispute to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo.
In some respects, Moscow had already succeeded: Japanese sanctions were less severe than those announced by the US late last month, and analysts pointed to the wording used by Japanese politicians suggesting Tokyo was not overly enthusiastic about imposing them. Russian media came to the same conclusion, with RIA Novosti calling them 'just for show' (Russian).
But should international sanctions continue to be ratcheted up, it looks unlikely that Tokyo will stray too far from the US position as it seeks stronger commitment from its ally in its dispute with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Japan's 2014 Defence White Paper, released yesterday, castigated China for its 'dangerous acts' over the islands, while also using language preferred by the US to describe the dispute.
US support in the war of words against China or the promise of future negotiations with Russia over the Kuril Islands? The choice is an obvious one for Mr Abe, despite the nationalistic pride he may have to swallow in not being the Japanese Prime Minister that finally brought the islands home.
In the meantime, economic ties between Japan and Russia have been improving just fine, despite the territorial dispute. China is again a factor. Russia wants to entice Japanese investment capital and energy technology to develop its Far East and counter China's monopolistic buying position on the region's natural resources. This suits Japan as it seeks out alternative sources of energy in the post-Fukushima era and hedges against geopolitical risk in the Middle East. Joint energy projects are already underway. So far, there's been no talk from Moscow of canceling them. And why would it? Doing so would cut off a valuable future energy export market at a time when Europe is looking to wean itself off Russian pipelines.