Japan is a great helper of Ukraine. What does this have to do with China?

While new support for Kiev is being debated in other parts of the world, Japan is acting in the background as an important donor and economic partner – but is also pursuing its own interests.

Russia's war against Ukraine has been raging for more than two years. But solidarity with Kiev seems to be dwindling: Ukrainian President Zelensky is pleading for help, Republicans and Democrats in the US House of Representatives have been arguing for months about further military aid for Kiev, and Maybe-Soon-Again President Donald Trump is mocking the lack of support from Europeans . After all, he recently described the “survival of Ukraine” as important for the USA.

While new financial and military aid for Ukraine is being debated in the USA and Europe, in the background one country has emerged as a major helper for Ukraine without much fanfare: Japan.

The East Asian island nation ranks seventh on the list of Ukraine's largest donors. Apart from the USA and European countries, Japan is actually the largest supporter, according to the “Ukraine Support Tracker” from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW). The state aid commitments amount to more than 7.5 billion euros, of which around 5.6 billion euros are financial aid and the rest are humanitarian aid.

Japanese Patriots through the back door

The Ukrainian Ministry of Finance says that Japan was even the third largest donor of financial assistance to Ukraine in 2023, with $3.7 billion in concessional financing and grants. But Japan also provides material support such as power generators, landmine detectors and broadcasting equipment to Ukraine. Japan is also treating Ukrainian wounded and imposing sanctions on Russia and Belarus.

For historical reasons, Tokyo does not deliver tanks or missiles directly to Ukraine. Japan has had a pacifist constitution since the end of World War II. There would be a lot of resistance if Japan were to supply weapons to Ukraine, says political scientist and Japan expert Dr. Alexandra Sakaki from the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP). star.

But here too there are ways and means to get around this. Patriot defense missiles, which Japan produces under license from the Americans, were exported to the USA – but with the clear indication that they could not be delivered to the Ukrainians. “De facto, this is a certain amount of support for Ukraine, because the USA can use it to replenish its ammunition stocks, which have shrunk due to deliveries to Ukraine.” Moscow has now warned Tokyo against such a step.

Japan's fear: Ukraine as a blueprint for China

However, Japanese aid to Ukraine focuses primarily on economic support and plays an important role in the reconstruction of the country.

© Science and Politics Foundation (SWP)

Dr. Alexandra Sakaki has been working at the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) since January 2012 and is deputy research group leader for Asia. Her focus areas include Japan's role in the international system, particularly Japan as a security policy actor in Northeast Asia.

This was also emphasized by Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in February at a conference on the reconstruction of Ukraine: “We will also support Ukraine in its efforts to rebuild people's lives and create new industries by taking various measures to boost the economy “To create the foundations of the country.” This will strengthen the entire economy of the war-torn country. In a certain way, Japan is also a role model for the Ukrainians: the country was destroyed after the Second World War and had to rebuild itself. Today Japan is one of the strongest economies in the world.

But the government in Tokyo also has an ulterior motive in its strong support for Ukraine – and it lies in the immediate vicinity. “The fear is that Russia's success in Ukraine could encourage China to take similar action in Asia,” explains Sakaki. In recent years, China has tried to assert its interests in the region using so-called gray zone tactics. However, Japan fears an even more aggressive approach, for example in the South China Sea or in Taiwan.

Japan is having its “turning point” moment

“Taiwan is geographically not far from Japan. If China were to attack Taiwan, Japan would also be affected militarily. Also because the USA, if they wanted to intervene militarily, would have to rely on their bases in Japan. These would of course also be in Focus of possible strikes by the Chinese.”

A direct attack by China on Japan is unlikely, says Sakaki, even if China questions Japan's control over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. With the USA, Tokyo has a guarantor for the country's security at its side.

But the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022 has caused a lot of things to slip in Japan in terms of security and defense policy: Japan has decided on a new national security strategy, defense strategy and an increase in the defense budget. “These are very big and significant steps, considering how Japanese security policy has been structured so far,” says political scientist Sakaki. For years, certain principles – such as the current cap on defense spending – had hardly been touched, even though Japan's security environment with states such as North Korea and China had deteriorated at an increasingly rapid pace. February 24th was also a “turning point” moment for the Japanese.

“There are many parallels between the German and Japanese reactions to the Russian attack on Ukraine. Prime Minister Kishida's rhetoric on the security situation in the world is very reminiscent of what Olaf Scholz said in his turnaround speech. That we “We are in a new era and have to reposition ourselves. This discourse also exists in Japan,” says Sakaki.

“Today's Ukraine can be tomorrow's East Asia”

This is also evident in Japanese-Russian relations. Before Russia invaded Ukraine more than two years ago, Japan was still trying to maintain a good relationship with Moscow. Especially under then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who had a personal relationship with Vladimir Putin. Now there is an ice age.

Sakaki explains that there were two hopes behind the rapprochement policy: a compromise on the four Kuril Islands, which are under Russian administration but are also claimed by Japan. “In this context, Japan also hoped for a peace treaty, which has still been outstanding since the end of the Second World War.”

The Kuril Islands are located northeast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Russia has expanded its military presence there in recent years. It could further reinforce this trend given Japan's support for Ukraine, Sakaki said. The situation there is tense, but Japan is not expecting a Russian attack from there. It is more likely that the status quo will remain.

“Another hope was to win over Russia as a counterweight to China. Japan tried to get as many countries as possible to form a critical mass against the all-powerful China. The attack on Ukraine destroyed that – also because the war was Russia into the arms of China.”

And that's exactly why Japan definitely doesn't want Russia to succeed in its war. Otherwise, Moscow's friends, the nuclear powers China and North Korea, could feel emboldened to also attack a neighboring country. That's exactly why Kishida warned: “Today's Ukraine can be tomorrow's East Asia.”

Sources: Government of Japan, Japan's Embassy in Germany, Ministry of Finance of Ukraine,IfWKiel, United Nations Development Program, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, news agencies AP, Kyodo and Reuters, “International Politics”, “Le Monde”, ZDF, “Mainichi Shimbun”, “Asahi Shimbun”, “taz”, Euronews, Deutsche Welle.