Kishida dumps Russia to back Washington on Ukraine but where does that leave China

Press briefing by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following an extraordinary meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. Source: Flickr/NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Author: Kazuhiko Togo, University of Shizuoka

When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the world changed, and so did Japan. The immediate lesson the Japanese leadership learned was that Ukraine had to face this ordeal because Ukraine was perceived to be too weak to defend its country effectively. Although NATO supplied arms, no country fought alongside Ukraine as it was not a NATO member.

The lesson the Japanese leadership drew was that Japan needs to have stronger military capabilities to defend itself. Open debates concerning ‘the ability to attack enemy bases’ or ‘nuclear sharing system in NATO’ will now arise. Strengthening the Japan–US security alliance in a way that allows Japan to possess greater responsibility will certainly be sought after.

The Japanese government is currently rethinking its foreign policy priorities. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has already chosen to align in full with the United States, the G7, Australia and other countries which share common values. Japan became one of the most active countries in implementing strong sanctions against Russia in support of Ukraine.

As Russian aggression towards Ukraine became more visible, Kishida’s openly negative stance towards Russia became more apparent. On 7 March, he stated that the ‘Northern Territories are inherent territories of Japan’ and on 8 March Foreign Minister Hayashi followed that they are ‘unlawfully occupied by Russia’. Japan does not intend to settle the issue through negotiations. On 9 March Kishida referred Russia to the International Criminal Court. What the two countries inherited from Gorbachev nearly 40 years ago will all be wiped out. For the foreseeable future, Japan–Russia relations will be one of the most troubled in Northeast Asia.

Kishida is paying great attention to how China is reacting to the Ukrainian crisis. The invasion of Ukraine has put China in an advantageous geopolitical situation. Biden is bound to spend more time settling the war in Europe. His demonising of Russian President Vladimir Putin compels Putin to align closer with China. China has been carefully watching how the geopolitical advantage has been turning into China’s favour.

Chinese President Xi Jinping must be asking why Biden, ceding geopolitical advantage to China, is crushing Russia’s international standing to an unprecedented low point since the end of the Second World War. Xi, knowing Putin, cannot miss his long-term strategy. Putin’s objective when he was first president (from 2000–08) was to make Russia a powerful state worthy of respect. From 2012, during his second term in office, his goal was to restructure the European security system, at the centre of which Russia would be placed.

For the recreation of a new security structure, keeping Ukraine and Georgia as non-NATO states — serving as a buffer or a neutral territory — was a prerequisite. Putin’s strategy, most likely understood and accepted by Xi, fits in well with John Mearsheimer’s view expressed in his article ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault’ and later confirmed in a New Yorker article.

But Biden gave every sign of encouragement to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, urging him not to abide by the Minsk II agreement, to take back Crimea and join NATO under the legal framework of Article 10 of the NATO Charter. Biden must have known that encouraging Zelensky toward NATO participation goes beyond Putin’s redline, which was publicly announced at NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit. Xi must have foreseen that Biden’s rigidity to protect Ukraine’s right for NATO membership will push Putin to show the world that he would reject this, even by mobilising military force.

Xi must be thinking deeply about the implications of Biden receiving all the benefit in repudiating Putin’s aggression. Biden is not shedding US blood in Ukraine. Ukrainians are willing to fight uncompromisingly against Russian aggression. NATO countries are reunited due to facing a new Russian threat and are supplying arms to Ukrainians. Putin’s objective to come back to Europe as a respected great power is now completely crushed and ‘Europe at the exclusion of Russia’ is emerging. Biden’s repeated message that attacks will come from Putin now has prophetic impact that Putin was evil by nature.

In addition, Europe has finally lowered its energy dependency on Russian gas and oil, which is now to be partly supplied from the United States.

But this is not yet the end of history. From China’s perspective, China views Putin not as irrational, but dangerous. Putin’s military operation does not seem to be proceeding as successfully as he had planned. He shall not stop his military operation without achieving his objective. There is no reason to exclude the usage of nuclear weapons from his military operation.

Xi must be pondering whether Biden is able to solve mounting horror in Europe. If he cannot, what will Biden’s international standing be? How will it affect China’s future position in the world? Xi stated on 8 March 2022 that he is troubled about the war in Europe and is ready to play a positive role but would not join sanctions against Russia. Japanese policy makers are watching the conclusion Xi comes to on Biden and how his conclusion might affect future peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

About the author

Kazuhiko Togo is Visiting Professor at the Global Centre for Asian and Regional Research, University of Shizuoka. He was formerly Director General of the Treaties Bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan.

Image sourced from Flickr. Taken by NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Updated:  8 August 2022/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Services Team