Japan's recent attempts to practice a more flexible foreign policy have created small but significant frictions with its chief ally, the United States. In particular, Tokyo has reached out to the Russians and the North Koreans even as its efforts at national revival have soured relations with South Korea and China. But to carve out the strategic space it wants, Japan must first update its defense arrangements with the United States, which at the moment has different ideas about how to deal with Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing.
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democrats came back into power in December 2012, Abe promised to revive the economy and rebuild Japan's status as a global power. Almost immediately, his administration started to thaw relations with historic rival Russia. Japan's energy security had been rattled by the Fukushima crisis, and the Russians had begun shifting export focus to East Asia in pursuit of a faster-growing consumer base. It made sense for the two sides to open investment and trade channels as they took steps to minimize perennial sources of animosity such as the disputed southern Kuril Islands. A quieter aspect of their efforts to improve cooperation came from their mutual suspicions of China's rising military power; the two agreed to security and military talks as a component of their overall improvement in relations.
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That policy, which has hardly gotten on its feet, has encountered its first challenge: Ukraine. Russia's use of unconventional military tactics to seize Crimea has triggered a confrontation with the United States and Europe. The situation is inherently uncomfortable for Japan, which believes that Russia unjustly seized the Kurils, and Tokyo has joined the Western powers in condemning the Crimean invasion. Yet Japan has refrained from joining them in imposing economic sanctions against Russia. The Japanese Defense Ministry has confirmed that military-to-military talks between commanders of Japan's northern military region and Russia's eastern district will proceed so that they pave the way for higher-level military visits in the near future. Japan is loath to postpone or cancel plans for such talks because it has only recently managed to make headway with Russia on issues critical to Tokyo's energy plans. U.S. pressure to take a tougher stance on Ukraine puts Tokyo's new Russia policy at risk.
Similarly, Japan has recently seen some movement in bilateral relations with North Korea. Over the past year, it has sent small, informal delegations to Pyongyang and has recently broached the idea of holding official bilateral talks. If Japan could gain some concessions from the North, as it did during a leaders' summit in 2002, it would not only give the government a boost in public opinion but also help settle lingering tensions over abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
Needless to say, reaching out to North Korea directly without coordinating with other powers goes against the U.S. and South Korean idea of concerted pressure. It also riles China, which does not want to see others compete for leverage with the North Koreans. Moreover, reaching out presents an area of potential overlap with Russia, which also seeks to maintain independent relations with the North.
While these policies have some economic potential, they point to Tokyo's desire to create stable political arrangements on the northern and northwestern fronts in order to focus its energy — and the public's attention — more intently on China, which it views as the preeminent threat to its national security. This increasingly intent focus on China makes the United States nervous that Japan will act too provocatively, driving China away from cooperation with the United States and its allies and potentially dragging Washington into conflicts.
Indeed, the Ukrainian crisis seems to have alarmed Japan. Since Russia already controls the Kurils, this concern has less to do with Russia's moves in Crimea and more with the precedent it sets for China to similarly "invade" the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands without U.S. retribution. Of course, the security alliance between the two makes the relationship fundamentally different; Ukraine has not joined NATO, so the United States is not obligated to defend it with force. But the Japanese view the broader trend of U.S. withdrawal from foreign entanglements warily, along with Washington's tendency to avoid confrontation with China in its efforts to balance regional affairs.
Japan's recent moves are not about to break the alliance with the United States. By themselves, they are not all that significant. But they could heighten tensions with its allies as Tokyo seeks more flexibility. The Japanese have long perceived U.S. sanctions on states like Iran as a hindrance on its ability to compete with China. Now, U.S. sanctions on Russia — and pressure on Japan to conform in other areas like North Korea — threaten to strangle the nascent progress in Tokyo's initiatives to recalibrate its diplomacy and military attention toward China. Japan will not lose sight of the predominant importance of the U.S. alliance, nor will the United States forget that it needs Japan to balance China. But the formula suggests that misunderstandings and divergences will gradually become more frequent.