Center for American Progress

How Japan and South Korea Can Contribute to an International Response to a Russian Invasion of Ukraine
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How Japan and South Korea Can Contribute to an International Response to a Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Japan's and South Korea’s pursuit of Russia ties should not prevent them from joining with other democracies to oppose invasion.

U.S. Secretary of State Blinken speaks during a joint press availability with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung and Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint press availability with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on February 12, 2022, following their meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Getty/AFP/Kevin Lamarque)

As Russia masses its forces on Ukraine’s borders in preparation for a possible invasion of its neighbor, the Biden administration has been working to assemble an international coalition to deliver a swift and effective economic response to a Russian invasion. In the face of this global threat, the administration has been especially focused on its European allies, who are best positioned to aid Ukraine. However, the European allies are also dependent on Russian natural gas and therefore vulnerable to retaliation. Therefore, President Joe Biden and other senior officials have also focused their attention on major U.S. allies in Asia.

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Following the January 21 virtual summit between President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, both governments confirmed that the two leaders discussed the situation in Ukraine during their 80-minute conversation.1 Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, has discussed Russian aggression against Ukraine with both the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers in recent weeks.2 The bilateral discussions between the U.S. and the Japanese and South Korean governments about their participation in response to a Russian invasion indicate that while coordination between the United States and the European Union is the highest priority, U.S. allies and partners in Asia can also play an important role in strengthening—or weakening—a sanctions regime.

Not only are U.S. allies in Asia critical nodes in global economic networks that could be major battlegrounds in the struggle with Russia—particularly since the Biden administration is considering applying export controls previously used against Huawei to deter Russia—but Japan and South Korea are also some of the world’s most robust democracies. As the Biden administration seeks to mobilize democracies to counter attempts by Russia, China, and other authoritarian governments to undermine a rules-based international order, securing the active cooperation of Japan and South Korea would show that the right to self-government is what is at stake in Ukraine. If Russia is able to undermine Ukraine’s fragile democracy and escape serious consequences, it will set a troubling precedent that could ultimately affect Asia’s democracies. As if to bring home that very point, Russia and China, in a wide-reaching February 4 joint statement, pledged to “stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions.”3

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As the crisis unfolds, it is imperative that the United States coordinate closely with Tokyo and Seoul to convince them to cooperate with international efforts.

The muted response of U.S. partners in Asia to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 suggests that the Biden administration cannot assume that its leading Asian allies will be enthusiastic participants in the imposition of sanctions. In recent years, both Japanese and South Korean governments have courted Russia in the pursuit of various strategic goals and have been reluctant to subordinate their own interests to U.S. policy toward Russia. But there are sensible and realistic steps the United States can take to draw Japan and South Korea into international efforts to counter a Russian invasion. These steps could include increasing financial support for Ukraine and neighboring governments, particularly to manage the humanitarian impact of an invasion; suspending diplomatic and economic engagement with Russia; and encouraging Japan and South Korea to improve their domestic anti-money laundering legislation. Above all, as the crisis unfolds, it is imperative that the United States coordinate closely with Tokyo and Seoul to convince them to cooperate with international efforts.

See also

Japan: An end to Abe’s Russian dream?

The Kishida government has been ambivalent about how it would respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. While Kishida praised Biden’s efforts to organize an international response when the two met in January, his government has also suggested it could still be reluctant to impose significant sanctions on Russia and Russian individuals. As Tomita Koji, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, told Politico: “Really, each country has a different approach to the sanctions. I don’t think there’ll be a monolithic action.”4

On the surface, it is not obvious why Japan would be reluctant to join with the United States and other partners to impose harsh measures on Russia. According to Japan’s Ministry of Finance, the total volume of trade between the two countries in 2021 was roughly $20 billion in current U.S. dollars, less than the roughly $23 billion in current U.S. dollars Japan and Russia traded in 2012.5 While the pandemic has undoubtedly affected the overall monetary amount, these numbers reveal that the weight of the trading relationship has not changed dramatically over the past decade. As of 2019, Russia was Japan’s 22nd-largest export market, while Japan was Russia’s 11th-largest export market.6 The fundamental pattern of exchange also remains unchanged. Japan predominantly sells cars, trucks, and auto parts to Russia—more than half of Japan’s exports in 2019 were in these categories—and imports oil, natural gas, coal, metals, and, to a lesser extent, agriculture and fisheries products.

$20B

Total volume of trade between Russia and Japan in 2021 (in current U.S. dollars)

$2.4B

Japan’s total stock of FDI in Russia by end of 2020

The investment picture is similarly underwhelming. By the end of 2020, Japan’s total stock of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Russia was $2.4 billion, which was the highest level since 2013 but still lower than that year’s total.7 This is at least an order of magnitude smaller than Japanese investments in other economies and is dwarfed by Japanese FDI in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the European Union. Some Japanese brands have increased their footprint in Russia, but this development was tenuous and losing momentum even before the pandemic.8 For example, a survey of Japanese firms doing business in Russia conducted in 2019 by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) recorded a 9.5 percentage point drop in the number of firms planning to expand their operations within the next two years.9 In the 2021 version of the JETRO survey, the share of firms planning to expand in Russia rose after plummeting in 2020, but it still remains below 2019’s share.10 It is noteworthy that businesses that plan to expand indicated they would predominantly focus on expanding retail operations, suggesting that Russia is not necessarily being integrated into the global production networks of Japanese multinational corporations. Perhaps not surprisingly, the size of the market has been the most commonly cited merit of Russia’s investment climate every year since JETRO began conducting the survey in 2013.

Where Russia matters to Japan is in its imports of oil, natural gas, and coal, all of which have grown as new facilities in Russia’s Far East have come online. These imports have been part of a concerted effort to diversify energy sources—which has also included importing more from the United States and Australia, for example—and so, they do not necessarily leave Japan vulnerable to Russian pressure. That said, Japan’s investment in Russian energy production has also increased in recent years. These investments have included the 2019 announcement of a 10 percent stake in Novatek’s Arctic liquefied natural gas (LNG) 2 project held by major trading company Mitsui and backed by the Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC), which bent its rules to secure Mitsui’s involvement.11 The Sakhalin Oil and Gas Development Company (SODECO), which is half-owned by the Japanese government and a consortium of Japanese firms, has a 30 percent stake in Russia’s Sakhalin-1 development, which, together with Rosneft, Exxon-Mobil, and India’s ONGC Videsh, began pursuing an LNG project in 2019.12

Japan’s interest in energy cooperation with Russia is not limited to hydrocarbons. In 2021, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and the Russian Ministry of Energy signed a nonbinding statement of intent to explore cooperation in sustainable energy sources, including hydrogen, ammonia, and carbon capture and storage.13 The Japanese government and corporate Japan are betting on hydrogen as a long-term solution to Japan’s clean energy needs and are looking to develop multiple sources overseas, while the Russian government views Japan’s focus on hydrogen as a strategic opportunity for its energy sector.14 It is likely, then, that this potential partnership in clean energy—as well as its other energy investments—makes the Japanese government reluctant to introduce sanctions and other measures that could cause a lasting rupture in the bilateral relationship.

Tokyo’s pursuit of energy cooperation is one part of a broader attempt by the Japanese government to realign its relationship with Russia.

Tokyo’s pursuit of energy cooperation is one part of a broader attempt by the Japanese government to realign its relationship with Russia. During his second premiership from 2012 to 2020, former Prime Minister Shinzō Abe made a territorial settlement and peace treaty with Russia one of his highest diplomatic priorities: The two countries had never formally ended hostilities after World War II due to their inability to resolve their dispute over the four southernmost Kuril Islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories. He was committed to building a personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough, meeting with him 27 times as part of this effort. While Abe’s focus on a peace settlement is often framed in terms of his family history—Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, was heavily invested in a peace settlement during and after his tenure as foreign minister from 1982 to 1986 and died shortly after welcoming Mikhail Gorbachev to Japan in 1991—the former prime minister was also pursuing a broader strategic vision.

The overarching goal of Abe’s Russia policy was to make Russia a strategic partner rather than a threat or adversary to Japan. In its 2013 National Security Strategy, the Abe administration explicitly outlined this strategic logic, arguing, “Under the increasingly severe security environment in East Asia, it is critical for Japan to advance cooperation with Russia in all areas, including security and energy, thereby enhancing bilateral relations as a whole, in order to ensure its security.”15

Abe’s strategic ambition ultimately explains why when the Russian government launched its campaign to annex Crimea and support separatists in eastern Ukraine in February 2014, the Japanese government was reluctant to join with the United States and its other G-7 peers to levy stringent sanctions on Russia. The 2014 crisis forced Abe to put his diplomatic campaign on hold; and Japan was eventually compelled to levy sanctions, although these sanctions were limited, mild, and seemed more about signaling its willingness to work with its peers and register its disapproval of Russia’s use of force to change a territorial status quo than about effectively punishing Russia.16 Indeed, Japan’s sanctions were mainly limited to suspending negotiations for agreements in several areas, including relaxed visa regulation and travel restrictions and asset freezes aimed at individuals and organizations involved in the annexation of Crimea as well as separatist activities in eastern Ukraine.17 The Japanese government reportedly compiled a separate list of Russian officials, but this list has not been made public and has not stopped senior Russian officials targeted by U.S. and EU sanctions from visiting Japan in recent years.18 The Russian government viewed Japan’s sanctions as the product of U.S. pressure on Japan and therefore not a fundamental obstacle to bilateral diplomacy.

The overarching goal of Abe’s Russia policy was to make Russia a strategic partner rather than a threat or adversary to Japan.

Therefore, by November 2014, Abe met again with Putin on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing, where the two leaders said they would prepare for a summit in Japan the following year.19 Abe’s commitment to personal diplomacy with Putin became an irritant in relations with the United States, as the Obama administration barely concealed its dissatisfaction with Abe’s continued meetings with the Russian president despite ongoing tensions with Russia over Ukraine and Syria. It was therefore not until the waning months of the Obama administration—even as U.S.-Russia relations worsened amid allegations of electoral interference by Moscow—that Abe was able to announce new steps to implement an eight-point plan for economic cooperation and host Putin in Japan in December 2016, including a visit to a hot spring resort in Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi.20 As a sign of his commitment to economic cooperation, particularly in the Russian Far East, as a means of building trust and opening the door to a lasting settlement, Abe established a new cabinet portfolio for economic cooperation with Russia, which was assigned to then-METI Minister Hiroshige Sekō and which has continued to be held by Sekō’s successors at METI. These meetings kick-started a new round of negotiations to resolve the status of the disputed islands. Abe met with Putin nine more times before his tenure ended in September 2020—and his foreign ministers would meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov 17 more times—but ultimately failed to conclude a settlement.

Although Kishida was Abe’s foreign minister from 2012 to 2017, it is unclear whether he will continue Abe’s Russia policy. When Kishida was foreign minister, he reportedly voiced his skepticism about Abe’s Russia policy—which was mainly run out of the prime minister’s office rather than the foreign ministry—questioning both the former prime minister’s willingness to accept the return of only two of the four disputed islands and his willingness to offer economic concessions even without progress in resolving the territorial dispute.21

However, during the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) leadership campaign in September 2021, Kishida praised Abe’s efforts—including his willingness to offer economic concessions as part of the negotiations—and offered few specifics about how he would approach Russia as prime minister. Kishida has continued to send ambiguous signals. In parliamentary questioning in December, he stated that his policy toward the Northern Territories is unchanged from that of the Abe administration. Abe, who wields considerable power as a former prime minister and LDP faction leader, has publicly pressured Kishida to adhere to the approach Abe articulated as prime minister, particularly in his 2018 meeting with Putin when he agreed that the 1956 Soviet-Japan joint declaration, which stipulates that Russia would transfer two islands after the conclusion of a peace treaty, should be the basis for negotiations.

If Kishida is in fact committed to sustained negotiations with Russia, it would suggest that his government might be reluctant to introduce sanctions that jeopardized bilateral relations with Russia. But there are signs that Kishida could be more willing to participate in an international coalition than Abe was in 2014.

It already appears that the domestic politics of Japan’s Russia policy are different in 2022 than they were in 2014. Kishida is already facing more domestic pressure to take a harder line with Russia than Abe did during the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Even more than in 2014, the current Ukraine crisis is deeply intertwined with Japan’s anxieties about the possibility that China could use force to change the territorial status quo in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and elsewhere in Asia. While Tokyo was concerned about the precedent that could be set by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, those concerns are now magnified, which could increase the Kishida government’s willingness to support and participate in a more stringent sanctions campaign. Some ruling LDP members have made this explicit, arguing that if Japan is unwilling to take a hard-line approach to Russia on Ukraine, it cannot expect that European countries will do the same to China in the event of a Taiwan invasion.22

Meanwhile, in an editorial calling on the Kishida government to take the lead in countering Russia, the Sankei Shimbun, a conservative daily, argued that Japan “must not repeat the Japanese government’s lackluster response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula” and suggested that “China is watching how other countries respond to Russia.”23 Most recently, the Diet’s passage of a nonbinding resolution on February 8—with the support of all lawmakers but for those from a minor left-wing opposition party—expressing support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, rejecting the use of force, and calling on the Kishida government to make “full use of all diplomatic resources” to reduce tensions suggests that there may be more support for a more confrontational approach to Russia than there was in 2014.24 No such resolution passed in 2014.

Kishida is already facing more domestic pressure to take a harder line with Russia than Abe did during the 2014 Ukraine crisis.

To a certain extent, these calls for more assertive action from Kishida are a reaction to Abe’s failure to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough despite his extensive talks with Putin. The pattern of Japan offering economic and territorial concessions without reciprocal concessions from the Russian government—which has in fact fortified its position in the Kuril Islands in recent years—has soured Japanese elites on diplomacy with Russia.25 Leading the charge is the foreign ministry, which has regained some of the influence it lost during Abe’s tenure. In general, there is little hope that by improving relations with Moscow, Japan can keep Russia from drawing closer to China. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi echoed other politicians in arguing that Japan would have to respond firmly to Russian aggression lest it “affect other people’s calculations in Asia.”26

At the same time, since 2014, the defense of a rules-based international order has become an increasingly important priority for Japanese foreign policy, which could mean more pressure on Kishida to introduce meaningful sanctions in line with those of the United States and other democracies. That said, Abe continues to wield considerable influence over the Kishida government. While he has suggested that China could be emboldened by a successful Russian invasion of Ukraine, he also indicated in a lengthy December 2021 interview on Russia policy with the Hokkaido Shimbun that he still believes in the strategic potential of the Japan-Russia relationship and the importance of continuing negotiations.27

The final factor shaping Kishida’s approach to the Ukraine crisis could be his own beliefs. He lacks the personal and ideological commitments that fueled Abe’s pursuit of a personal relationship with Putin and closer ties with Russia. In recent decades, achieving closer relations with Russia has had symbolic importance for conservatives like Abe—representing postwar Japan’s ability to pursue great power diplomacy independent of the United States—as well as strategic importance, with Japanese strategists long viewing Russia as a potential counterweight to China. Kishida, however, is from the LDP’s liberal wing, which has been more instinctively oriented to the United States. Given the strategic importance of preserving close ties with the United States—again, with an eye toward China—Kishida may feel more compelled to back Biden’s approach, in contrast to Abe’s willingness to defy the Obama administration and pursue diplomatic rapprochement with Russia even as the U.S.-Russia relationship worsened.

The upshot is that while Japan is unlikely to play a leadership role in organizing a response to a Russian invasion, there may be more political space for the Biden administration to include Japan in an international response than there was in 2014.

See also

South Korea: Vision of Eurasian connectivity could limit Seoul’s options

If Japan was a reluctant participant in the U.S.-led response to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, South Korea did not participate at all. While the government of then-President Park Geun-hye condemned Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and refused to recognize the annexation, Seoul did not impose even the token sanctions that Japan imposed in 2014.28

This lack of action may in part reflect differences in Japan’s and South Korea’s international statures. As a G-7 member, it would have been difficult for Japan to demure on sanctions. South Korea, however, had more freedom to prioritize its national interests in its relationship with Russia. Since the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between South Korea and Russia in 1990, the two nations’ economic and political ties have deepened considerably. The overall value of two-way trade between the two countries has, for example, increased nearly tenfold from 2000 to 2021, growing from $2.85 billion in 2000 to $27.33 billion in 2021.29 Hyundai Motor Group, South Korea’s leading automaker, has invested heavily in Russia and currently has the largest share of the Russian automobile market.30

$2.85B

Overall value of two-way trade between Russia and Japan in 2000

$27.33B

Overall value of two-way trade between Russia and Japan in 2021

As vigorous as Abe’s pursuit of closer ties with Russia was, South Korean presidents of all ideological stripes have courted Russia as a strategic partner that could help stabilize the Korean Peninsula. Roh Tae-woo, a progressive, was the first South Korean president to prioritize building diplomatic relations with communist bloc countries, including the Soviet union in 1990, as a way to diversify South Korea’s trading partners and induce North Korea to engage by building relations with its traditional allies. In 2008, a conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, then forged a “strategic cooperative partnership” with Russia. More recently, in 2013, Park, another conservative, proposed a Eurasian economic initiative that would look to Russia in particular to strengthen transportation and energy network connections between the Korean Peninsula and the rest of the Eurasian landmass.

Park’s initiative was part of her larger foreign policy vision to strengthen ties with neighbors such as China and Russia without distancing from the U.S. alliance. This was an unusual approach considering that South Korea’s conservative presidents have traditionally prioritized the U.S.-South Korea alliance and progressives have tended to play more of a balancing role between the United States, China, and Russia. Relations with Russia were still cooler after the Crimea annexation, as Park was wary about angering the Obama administration. South Korean companies also became increasingly reluctant to invest for fear of being affected by western sanctions on Russia. But Park still met with Putin on many occasions, including the second Korea-Russia summit in September 2013 to promote Korea’s diplomatic initiatives for peaceful reunification. Just weeks later at a November 2013 summit, Park and Putin met in South Korea, where the two leaders adopted a joint statement containing a five-year development blueprint for the two countries and an agreement expanding cooperation and cultural exchanges between the two countries.31 Meanwhile, Park opted to attend China’s military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping even as Abe and other democratic leaders stayed home.32

South Korean presidents of all ideological stripes have courted Russia as a strategic partner that could help stabilize the Korean Peninsula.

Despite the warning messages from the White House, Park continued to meet with Putin even after the Crimea annexation. The two leaders met on the sidelines of the 2014 APEC conference in November and the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in 2015; moreover, like Abe, Park attended the Eastern Economic Forum and held a summit with Putin in Vladivostok, Russia, in September 2016.33 Park’s Vladivostok attendance was predicated on her belief that Putin could play a role in reviving the six-party nuclear talks with North Korea.34

After Moon Jae-in won the presidency in 2017, the bilateral relationship recovered. In September 2017, Moon announced his “New Northern Policy” in a speech at Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.35 Moon hoped for complementarity with Putin’s “Pivot to the East,” with Korea providing needed investment for the development of the Russian Far East and Russia, in turn, providing growth opportunities for South Korean companies. The core of the Moon administration’s New Northern Policy was its “9-Bridge Strategy,” which identified nine priority areas for investment and cooperation.36 The strategy highlighted transportation and energy—not unlike Moon’s conservative predecessors—including the long-standing ambition to connect railroads in South and North Korea with the Trans-Siberian Railroad and to create new connections for importing Russian natural gas. The strategy also called for cooperation in science and technology research, health care, agriculture, and culture and tourism.

However, as the railroad scheme suggests, this strategy was intimately linked with Moon’s broader strategic goals. As Moon outlined in a July 2017 speech at the Körber Foundation in Berlin, “Economic cooperation where the South and the North prosper together is an important foundation of establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.”37 Development projects such as those included in the 9-Bridge Strategy would both connect the Korean Peninsula with the broader region and strengthen economic ties between the two Koreas, creating a “new economic map” for the peninsula.

It is difficult to expect the Moon administration to break sharply with Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

In this vision, Moon could use Russia’s interest in the development of its Far East to advance a grander strategic vision for South Korea. Moon showed his commitment to Russia as a strategic partner in 2018 when he took the first state visit to Russia by a South Korean president in 20 years, which included an address to the State Duma. During that visit, Moon hailed the potential for trilateral cooperation between Russia and the two Koreas to serve as a “strong foundation for an economic community in Northeast Asia.”38

The New Northern Policy has not fundamentally changed the economic relationship between South Korea and Russia mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing impact of sanctions on North Korea and Russia, and the reality of limited market opportunities in Russia for South Korean companies—all of which prevented significant progress in developing investment links.

Nevertheless, given its track record on Russia policy, it is difficult to expect the Moon administration to break sharply with Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Despite North Korea increasing missile tests, Moon remains open to diplomacy and has stressed the need for a return to talks, vowing to spend the final weeks of his term searching for a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.39 With the lack of a U.S. ambassador to South Korea and the crisis in Ukraine dominating news cycles and overshadowing North Korea’s increasing missile launches, Moon may even view the crisis as a competing interest.

If a progressive wins the Blue House in the upcoming March 9 presidential election, it may be difficult to see any action from Seoul on Ukraine. Although progressives believe that the U.S.-South Korea alliance is important, if ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung takes office with the same staff from the Moon administration, there will undoubtedly be resentment toward the United States, as the Moon faction views America as one of the reasons why progress with North Korea stalled.40 Without addressing the issues on the Korean Peninsula, progressives are less likely to move and may even feel that the alliance is disproportionately skewed toward U.S. interests, as they feel that Russia can play a role in pursuing peace with North Korea.

Despite also being a conservative like Park, candidate Yoon Seok-youl is returning to more traditional conservative foreign policy views. Yoon criticized the Moon administration’s radio silence on the Ukraine crisis and pledged to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance after it was weakened by the Moon administration.41

With the vast differences on foreign policy views between the top two candidates [Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Seok-youl], South Korea’s presidential elections will have significant ramifications for U.S. foreign policy.

With the vast differences on foreign policy views between the top two candidates, South Korea’s presidential elections will have significant ramifications for U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, the Biden administration should coordinate with South Korea regarding its response to any Russian action in Ukraine and should seek at least a strong rhetorical response from Seoul and perhaps even symbolic sanctions against Russian officials. Meanwhile, if the Biden administration opts to use the foreign direct product rule (FDPR)—the export control used to limit global semiconductor sales to Huawei that has been mooted for semiconductor sales to Russia—it should prioritize coordination with Seoul to facilitate the cooperation of Samsung and SK Hynix with regard to new sanctions.

See also

Recommendations

While U.S. allies in Asia are far from the front line in Europe, their economic and political influence, positions in global economic networks, and political and economic ties with Russia make them important partners in an international effort to counter a Russian campaign against Ukraine.

The policy recommendations below outline how the Biden administration should work to line up the support of Japan and South Korea in responding to Russian aggression in the Ukraine.

Communicate early and often

While the Biden administration is preoccupied with negotiations with Russia and European allies, senior officials need to keep their Asian counterparts informed of the administration’s intentions as the situation evolves. President Biden’s conversation with Prime Minister Kishida was a good start—as was a recent call between Secretary of State Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong that reportedly addressed Ukraine.42 On February 12, Ukraine was also encouragingly on the agenda for a trilateral meeting between Blinken, Chung, and Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi in Hawaii, where they “committed to work closely together to deter further Russian escalation.”43

These consultations must continue as the situation evolves. To the extent possible, the administration should publicize that Ukraine is on the agenda at these bilateral consultations. And if the Biden administration decides to apply the FDPR to limit Russia’s ability to import semiconductors and other critical technological components, it should coordinate closely with Japan and South Korea, as well as Taiwan, since much as with the use of the FDPR against Huawei, their companies could be among those most affected by an application of the rule to Russia.44

Confirm an ambassador to South Korea

Rahm Emanuel is now in place as the U.S. ambassador to Japan, strengthening communication between the two governments at the senior-most level. Emanuel has already had an impact even before his arrival in Tokyo, reportedly managing the process of scheduling the virtual summit. However, the administration did not announce its pick for ambassador to South Korea until February 11, when the president indicated his intention to nominate Philip Goldberg—a career foreign service officer who has previously served as ambassador to Colombia, Bolivia, and the Philippines, as well as the chargé d’affaires in Cuba—to the post.

Between North Korea’s missile tests in January, the evolving Ukraine crisis, and the looming political transition in South Korea, there is increasing urgency for a U.S. ambassador in Seoul to facilitate coordination on these challenges, and it is urgent for the Senate to move swiftly to confirm Goldberg’s nomination.

Consider alternatives to sanctions

Although Japanese and South Korean companies may have little choice but to comply with some of the more dramatic proposals floated for sanctions against Russia, it is unclear whether the Japanese or the South Korean government will be willing or able to impose meaningful sanctions on Russian individuals and organizations. The Kishida government has signaled that it will coordinate with the United States and European countries regarding sanctions—and could add some additional sanctions of its own—but questions remain about how stringent Japan’s sanctions will be. The South Korean government, meanwhile, has been quiet about its own response to an invasion.

Given the potential challenges to securing Japanese and South Korean participation in an international sanctions campaign, the Biden administration should encourage both governments to assist Ukraine in other ways. The administration has already taken some steps in this vein, encouraging South Korea to provide military assistance to Ukraine and Japan to contribute LNG to European countries whose supplies could be disrupted following a Russian invasion.45 The Biden administration should also look to Tokyo and Seoul for financial assistance to manage the humanitarian consequences of a Russian invasion, particularly refugee flows to neighboring countries, as well as post-conflict reconstruction in Ukraine itself. There is a strong precedent for this approach. As of 2018, Japan had loaned or donated $1.86 billion to Ukraine in economic assistance and support for Ukrainian democracy and national integrity since 2014—more than any other country at the time.46

The Kishida government has responded positively to the request to send LNG and is working with private companies to secure supplies to send to Europe. On February 15, Kishida also pledged at least $100 million in development loans for Ukraine during a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a promising sign of Tokyo’s willingness to contribute to international efforts.47 The Biden administration should continue to solicit Japan’s support and press South Korea to find similar ways to back Ukraine.

Encourage allies to isolate Russia diplomatically

Both Japanese and South Korean leaders resumed their diplomatic overtures to Moscow within months of the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. In the event of a Russian invasion, the Biden administration should urge its allies to suspend high-level meetings with Putin and other senior Russian leaders until certain preconditions are met.

This ought to start now and may well be a popular step, at least in Japan, where Foreign Minister Hayashi has drawn criticism for meeting virtually on February 15 with Russian Minister of Economic Development Maksim Reshetnikov to discuss continuing economic cooperation.48 Although Hayashi also raised concerns about Ukraine, the Biden administration should pressure its allies to abjure from ministerial and leader-level meetings with Russian officials—particularly to discuss economic cooperation—until the crisis is resolved.

Suspend development projects in the Russian Far East

Both Tokyo and Seoul have agreed to joint development projects in the Russian Far East as part of their strategic engagement with Moscow. These projects could be vulnerable to U.S. financial sanctions in the event of a crisis.

For example, among the institutions that would be sanctioned by Sen. Robert Menendez’s (D-NJ) Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act is Sovcombank, which has received capital from the Russia-Japan Investment Fund established by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), a sovereign wealth fund.49 The partnership between the Korea Investment Corporation, South Korea’s sovereign wealth fund, and RDIF may be similarly exposed to financial sanctions.

The Biden administration should encourage the Japanese and South Korean governments to, at the very least, suspend new investments in the Russian Far East in the near term.

Encourage allies to strengthen anti-corruption legislation

While changing domestic legislation in Japan and South Korea will do little to support efforts to punish a Russian invasion of Ukraine in the near term, the United States should encourage both allies to adopt their own versions of the United States’ Global Magnitsky Act. Doing so would strengthen their ability to sanction individuals involved in human rights violations and corruption.

Japan may be more likely than South Korea to consider such legislation in the near term, evidenced by the fact that in 2021, Japanese lawmakers began advocating for a Magnitsky Act in order to sanction Chinese individuals for human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.50 However, that initiative stalled. The Biden administration should encourage another effort to pass legislation.

Both Tokyo and Seoul should also be encouraged to strengthen anti-money laundering provisions consistent with the recommendations of the inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force, which is particularly urgent for Japan given the size of its financial markets.51 Japan’s Ministry of Justice has already taken an important step by strengthening requirements for companies to verify the identities of their investors—so-called beneficial ownership rules—an important tool for combating money laundering.52 More generally, cooperation to combat transnational corruption should be a priority at the senior-most levels in the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea relationships.

Conclusion

While the Biden administration should not expect that its Asian allies will assume leadership roles in a global coalition to counter a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the principles at stake in Ukraine—national self-determination free from coercion, the durability of global norms against the use of force to seize territory, and the prospect of authoritarianism on the march against the U.S.-led international rules-based order—are directly relevant in East Asia. Accordingly, although Tokyo and Seoul are both wary of breaking ties with Russia that their leaders have cultivated over the past several decades, Japan and South Korea should be encouraged to support international efforts to a greater extent than they did in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014.

Recent political change in both countries could make these allies more receptive to U.S. entreaties than they have been in the past. Importantly, the participation of Japan and South Korea in a global response would increase its effectiveness and also signal that democracies are increasingly unwilling to compromise their principles for the sake of commercial advantages.

Endnotes

  1. The White House, “Readout of President Biden’s Meeting with Prime Minister Kishida of Japan,” Press release, January 21, 2022, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/01/21/readout-of-president-bidens-meeting-with-prime-minister-kishida-of-japan/.
  2. U.S. Department of State, “Secretary Blinken’s Call with Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi,” Press release, February 1, 2022, available at https://www.state.gov/secretary-blinkens-call-with-japanese-foreign-minister-hayashi-3/; U.S. Department of State, “Secretary Blinken’s Call with Republic of Korea Foreign Minister Chung,” Press release, February 3, 2022, available at https://kr.usembassy.gov/020322-secretary-blinkens-call-with-republic-of-korea-foreign-minister-chung/.
  3. The Kremlin, “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development,” Press release, February 4, 2022, available at http://en.kremlin.ru/supplement/5770.
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Authors

Tobias Harris

Senior Fellow

Haneul Lee

Research Assistant

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