On February 9, 2022, the Mansfield Foundation convened a roundtable discussion with Prof. Gilbert Rozman (Princeton University) and Prof. Yoko Iwama (GRIPS), who explored Japan’s role in the Ukrainian crisis and its possible consequences on the future of the U.S.-Japan and Japan-Russia relations.
Commenting on the state of Japan-Russia relations, Dr. Rozman opened the discussion by emphasizing the significant perception gap between the two countries. He argued that although the Japanese government has been touting its recent negotiation efforts with Russia as successful, the real impact of these efforts has been minimal. Japan has not been able to identify and understand Russian President Putin’s real motives, which are mainly historical and geopolitical. Prof. Rozman concluded that not only is the future of Japan-Russia relations in jeopardy, but the current tensions at the Ukrainian border will also be an important test for the U.S.-Japan relationship.
Dr. Iwama observed a different perception gap: while analysts in the United States are certain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is imminent, European countries and Japan are convinced that a diplomatic solution is still on the table. These diverging points of view are causing some tensions between the Unites States and its allies. Although Japan has been slow in reacting to the Ukraine crisis, it now believes that the U.S. is not taking the global economic impact of the crisis seriously enough. Tokyo is also concerned that the Ukraine crisis is a rehearsal of a potential Taiwan Strait crisis: the current coordination among allies is not sufficient and the panelist advocated for a much stronger dialogue and coordination structure in the future. She also shared the concern of many in Japan that the United States is not prepared to fight two wars simultaneously in Europe and in Asia and that the Ukraine crisis might divert U.S. attention and assets from Asia.
During the Q&A section of the event, Prof. Iwama again emphasized the need for better coordination between G7 nations and urged the United States to refrain from surprising its allies and announcing possible sanctions unilaterally. Prof. Rozman strongly disagreed with the view that the United States has surprised its allies or that it was not doing enough to coordinate with them. He also added that in the event of a Russian invasion, the United States will undoubtedly consult with its allies extensively and that it will need Japan to step up and assist in the crisis directly. However, he highlighted the Japanese reluctance in becoming tangled in the crisis at the current stage. Prof. Iwama, on the other hand, pointed out that both the United States and Japan have been slow in realizing and defining Japan’s potential role in the Ukraine crisis, as they first treated it as a European problem. Lastly, she raised the concern, shared by many in Japan, that the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly accentuated Japan’s inward-looking tendency, which also affects the country’s foreign policy.