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Tokyo Freezes Assets of Russians, Clarifying Once Ambiguous Relations With Moscow


FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo, Feb. 25, 2022. Japan announced Tuesday a new round of sanctions on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine.

Japan announced Tuesday a new round of sanctions on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine, signaling a shift from its gentler and more ambiguous response to Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.

The latest sanctions include controls on the movement and assets of several individuals associated with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as some additional Belarusian officials. They also include an export ban on Russia-bound oil refinery equipment and Belarus-bound general-purpose items that its military could use, according to Reuters.

Targets of the sanctions include Putin administration deputy chiefs of staff, the head of the Chechen Republic, and executives of Kremlin-linked companies such as Volga Group, Transneft and Wagner Group, Japan's Finance Ministry said Tuesday.

These restrictions are in addition to those imposed in late February, when Tokyo barred entry of select Russians and froze the assets of others, including some assets believed to belong to Putin.

Japan has also implemented high-tech export controls and joined the Group of Seven nations, or G-7, in denying some Russian banks access to the global bank-to-bank payment system, SWIFT. The G-7 includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, plus the European Union.

Such actions stand in contrast to remarks made by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida earlier this year. In a January 17 policy speech, Kishida said Tokyo was ready to develop a "comprehensive relationship with Russia, including cooperation in the energy sector."

On February 25, when Japan announced a package of sanctions, Kishida adopted a different tone, demanding that Russia stop the invasion and withdraw. The "attack shakes the foundation of the international world order," he said.

The last time Japan was called on to impose sanctions on Russia was in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine. At the time, Tokyo's response was ambiguous, with then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wanting to persuade Putin to return four islands off Hokkaido in northern Japan that the Soviet Union had claimed at the end of World War II. The two nations have never signed a peace treaty following the war.

Bunji Abe, a professor emeritus at Osaka Kyoiku University in Japan, said that in 2014, most Japanese were waiting to see whether the two sides could reach a peace treaty.

"Today, however, a majority of Japanese have given up that hope, thinking Russia has no intention of returning any of the Northern Territories," he told VOA Mandarin.

Setting a precedent for China?

The shift since Russia's invasion of Ukraine highlights the collapse of faith of both the Japanese government and the public that Russia will abide by international norms, analysts told VOA Mandarin. The shift also highlights concerns about the precedent that Russia's invasion sets for Japan's other large authoritarian neighbor, China.

"The main reason for the Kishida government [changing] its attitude is to send a clear message to Russia and the international community, that is, Japan does not want any country to unilaterally use force to change the status quo," Jack Yang, a professor of government and laws at the National University of Koahsiung, told VOA Mandarin.

Since the invasion, public opinion in Japan has backed tough action against Russia. Polls have also revealed deep concerns about what the invasion of Ukraine could mean for Taiwan.

According to a poll conducted by Nikkei Asia and TV Tokyo from February 25 to 27, 61% of the respondents wanted Tokyo to keep up with the West in sanctioning Russia, while 30% said Japan should have its own diplomatic approach.

In that same poll, 77% of Japanese respondents agreed that if Japan didn't take a strong stance against Russia's aggression toward Ukraine, Taiwan could be in danger from China.

China, which has long argued that the self-ruled island is its territory, has never ruled out the use of force in its push for what it calls "reunification" with Taiwan.

China has ratcheted up pressure on Taiwan recently and routinely flies air sorties into Taiwan's air defense identification zone. According to Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense, China flew 950 sorties in 2021 and 29 this year since Russia invaded Ukraine.

China has criticized the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies, arguing that they are unlikely to help the situation, and it has largely backed Russia, refusing to call the attack an invasion. On Monday, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Russia his country's "most important partner."

Speaking on the sidelines of China's annual legislative meetings in Beijing, Wang said that the relationship would remain strong.

"No matter how precarious and challenging the international situation may be, China and Russia will maintain strategic focus and steadily advance our comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era," Wang said.

For now, Osaka Kyoiku University's Abe said China would continue to watch the situation in Ukraine closely. As will Japan, he added.

"I think the Chinese leaders are keeping a close eye on how Western countries, especially the United States, is responding to Russia's invasion of Ukraine," Abe said. "For Japan, the Russian-Ukraine war is helping us to understand what will be the likely dynamic when China tries to take Taiwan in the future."

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