TOKYO -- The Ukraine crisis is straining relations between Japan and its most important ally, the U.S. American frustration is growing over Tokyo's reluctance to penalize Russia for its expansionism. Some on the other side of the Pacific are saying a failure to take a stand against Moscow could exacerbate instability in Asia.
A symposium on Japan-U.S. relations was recently held in Washington, D.C. Russia's annexation of Crimea, a region in southern Ukraine, loomed large over the proceedings. Richard Armitage, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state, warned that China probably feels emboldened to step up pressure on Japan over the Senkaku Islands.
The Senkakus -- uninhabited specks in the East China Sea that China claims and calls the Daioyu Islands -- are a major source of tension between the two Asian neighbors. Armitage's remarks reflect concerns that China will take the failure to stop Russia as a signal it can do as it pleases.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has joined his counterparts from the other Group of Seven industrialized countries in criticizing Moscow. But compared with Western leaders, Abe has been less enthusiastic about imposing tough sanctions. Japan was slow to implement even modest penalties after Russia took control of Crimea.
Abe has his reasons. The prime minister has already held five summits with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has a strong desire to achieve a breakthrough in stalled negotiations with Russia over disputed islands off northeastern Hokkaido. He also wants to prevent China and Russia from forming a united front.
But as Russia, with Crimea in its pocket, applies military pressure on eastern Ukraine, Japan's policy is coming under closer scrutiny in Washington. Within the administration of President Barack Obama, there is growing dissatisfaction with Tokyo's light touch, according to one U.S. official.
The 6th Japan-Russian Investment Forum, held in Tokyo on March 19, did nothing to ease that dissatisfaction. The event was co-sponsored by the Japanese and Russian governments. Cabinet members from both countries scrapped plans to attend, but messages from Abe and Putin were read at the opening of the event.
The forum resulted in agreements to promote cooperation between Japanese and Russian companies.
Prior to the Ukraine turmoil, some in the Obama administration had welcomed Tokyo and Moscow's efforts to forge closer relations.
Last November, Japan and Russia held their first "two-plus-two" meeting of foreign and defense ministers. Some U.S. officials said at the time that Russo-Japanese cooperation would serve U.S. interests. They suggested it would encourage Russia to view Japan and the U.S. -- not China -- as its partners in the Asia-Pacific region.
For Washington, the formation of a China-Russia "axis" that resists all American diplomacy might be the worst-case scenario. Japan could be the key to preventing that.
Edward Luttwak, an American military strategist who advises the Pentagon, said Russia poses less of a threat to the U.S. than China. His reasoning is that Russia lacks the economic power for a rapid military buildup. Russia itself, Luttwak added, is threatened by Chinese expansions in the Far East.
That could motivate Moscow to work with Japan and the U.S. Yet the Ukraine situation has hushed such talk within the Obama administration.
Beware of ripples
A former senior U.S. official close to the Obama White House said a lenient attitude toward Russia's annexation of Crimea could have a spillover effect in Asia. China, the official said, might feel it can be more assertive not only in the East China Sea but also the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with some Southeast Asian countries.
A high-ranking U.S. military official said Japan ought to view the Crimea crisis as its own problem, since the ripples will inevitably reach the Senkaku Islands.
There are limits to Japan's influence -- tougher sanctions against Russia would not significantly change the situation in Ukraine. Nevertheless, Tokyo's ability to juggle relations with Moscow and Washington could have big implications for the future of Asia.