Japan’s Leadership Role on Ukraine

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On February 19 Japan hosted the Japan-Ukraine Conference for Promotion of Economic Growth and Reconstruction in Tokyo, drawing participation from 130 firms representing both countries. The conference concluded with the signing of 56 agreements between businesses and government officials from Ukraine and Japan, encompassing various sectors such as infrastructure, energy, agriculture, and information technology.

The occasion not only illuminates the path forward for Ukraine’s recovery efforts but also Japan’s commitment to supporting Ukraine in the context of a robust foreign policy strategy centered on preserving a rules-based international order.

Keeping Ukraine in the Spotlight

At the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Japan swiftly announced punitive sanctions against Russia in coordination with the United States and other Group of Seven (G7) countries. Japan has since maintained its commitment to provide direct and indirect assistance to Ukraine. Over the past two years, Japan has pledged nearly $12 billion in support for Ukraine, making it one of the top bilateral donors.

During its G7 presidency last year, Japan played a crucial role in maintaining global attention on Ukraine and exerting pressure on Russia. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio became the first Japanese leader to visit a conflict zone since World War II when he traveled to Kyiv in March 2023. His visit coincided with the Xi-Putin summit held in Moscow, offering a stark contrast between the two opposing camps and highlighting Japan’s diplomatic engagement and solidarity with Ukraine.

In May 2023, President Volodymyr Zelensky reciprocated the visit by attending the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, where Kishida had also extended invitations to countries representing the “Global South,” including India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the African Union. The occasion provided what French president Emmanuel Macron called “a unique opportunity” for the Ukrainian leader to engage directly with these representatives, coalescing their support around building a broader international coalition.

To Be a Stronger Alliance Partner

Japan’s proactive approach extends beyond the conclusion of the G7 Summit, reflecting, in part, its resolve to stand as a steadfast partner to the United States. Last December, the Japanese government pledged an additional aid package of $4.5 billion, earmarked for direct humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and contributions via the World Bank. This announcement emerged amid growing concerns over the U.S. Congress’s impasse on military aid to Ukraine, highlighting Japan’s readiness to step up in times of need.

Another instance of Japan’s multifaceted engagement is the decision to ease rules on arms exports, a discussion that predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but gained momentum afterwards. During the initial months of the conflict, Japan provided military vehicles, flak jackets, and drones to Ukraine. While modest compared to the weapon systems supplied by NATO and EU countries, it represented a significant step for Japan, considering its stringent defense equipment export controls.

The Kishida government further pushed the envelope late last year when it announced a transfer of its Patriot missiles to the United States to replenish U.S. inventory. Strictly speaking, these interceptor missiles are for U.S. use only. Nevertheless, this action will undoubtedly assist the war effort by freeing up existing U.S. stockpiles that can be sent to Ukraine to enhance its air defense capabilities. 

Evolution of Japan’s National Strategy

Japan’s multifaceted response to the Ukrainian crisis also underlines an evolution of its national security strategy, which traces back to the First Gulf War in 1991. At that time, Japan, heavily reliant on the Middle East for its oil imports, contributed $13 billion to support the U.S.-led coalition’s military operation. However, due to constitutional restrictions preventing the deployment of its own troops, Japan’s efforts were underappreciated and referred to as “checkbook diplomacy.” This marked a turning point for Japan, prompting a reassessment of its role in international cooperation.

In subsequent years, Japan pursued more robust engagement in global affairs while strengthening its own defense capabilities, fostering cooperation with the United States, and expanding partnerships beyond traditional allies to include countries like Australia, India, the United Kingdom, and NATO. The adoption of three strategic documents in December 2022, which many observers called “transformational,” reflects Japan’s recognition of a rapidly shifting security landscape in the Indo-Pacific region. Kishida’s assertion that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow” illustrates Japan’s perception of the interconnected nature of global security challenges and the importance of safeguarding the liberal world order based on democratic principles.

This sentiment was widely shared by the Japanese public. In an opinion poll conducted a month after the invasion began, 77 percent of respondents expressed concern that if the international community fails to halt Russia’s invasion and territorial changes by force, it could pave the way for China to use military force against Taiwan. 

While Japan has a track record of sustained engagement with emerging economies through official development assistance and providing humanitarian aid to conflict-affected countries, its capability for a rapid response to armed conflicts has long been considered a weaker aspect of its foreign policy toolkit. Japan’s swift and coordinated response to the war in Ukraine, followed through with firm political leadership, marks a notable shift. It may indeed be the first instance in which Japan’s efforts have been fully appreciated for both their speed and scale.

The Road Ahead

While continuing to support the war effort through diplomatic, humanitarian, financial, and defense contributions, Japan is now pivoting toward an area where its expertise truly shines: recovery and reconstruction. As the war enters its third year, there is a prevailing recognition that rebuilding Ukraine needs to start now, especially given the fact that there likely will not be an equivalent to the “zero hour” that definitively marked the end of World War II and the beginning of reconstruction in Germany. The World Bank estimates it will cost at least $486 billion over the next decade for Ukraine’s reconstruction, and experts agree that an effort of that magnitude will require both public and private investments. 

While the dialogue has already begun through multilateral fora such as the Ukraine Recovery Conferences, most recently convened in London last June, Tokyo faces considerable hurdles in encouraging broader involvement from the business sector. These challenges encompass aligning incentives among stakeholders and overcoming financial, regulatory, and logistical obstacles.

The Economic Reconstruction Conference in Tokyo emerged as a response to these challenges, sharply focused on identifying key investment opportunities for Japanese firms, spanning both large corporations and small startups. This contrasts with Japan’s previous initiatives, such as its role in cohosting high-level conferences addressing reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan in the early 2000s, by inviting a broader and more direct engagement of the business sector, aiming to make tangible economic contributions to Ukraine’s recovery.

As Kishida committed to leverage Japan’s collective resources, multiple agencies have been spearheading the efforts. For instance, Japan’s largest business federation, Keidanren, set up a special committee last year to facilitate information sharing and has joined in the government mission to Kyiv. Alongside the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which reopened its office in Kyiv last November, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) will establish an office in the capital. Together, they will be well-positioned to facilitate cooperation with Ukraine in providing support in a wide range of sectors, as well as offering support for Japanese businesses in Ukraine.

On the day of the Tokyo conference, the Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC) announced its plans to provide a two-step loan in support of development projects through the Black Sea Trade and Development Bank, in areas such as transport, digital infrastructure, and manufacturing. Furthermore, the Nippon Export and Investment Insurance (NEXI), a government-owned entity, has extended credit lines in the amount of $1.2 billion for underwriting insurance policies for Japanese firms operating in conflict zones. These initiatives are only a few examples that illustrate Japan’s concerted effort in fostering public-private cooperation in the recovery and reconstruction phase.

Since the onset of the war, Japan has actively pursued a multifaceted approach to assist in restoring peace and stability in Ukraine, a strategy that might not have been feasible just half a decade ago. As Japan continues to navigate through complex challenges ahead, it will continue to seek creative solutions, complementing efforts by other countries. Japan stands poised to be a steadfast partner to the international coalition working toward ensuring the future prosperity of Ukraine, and is ready to assume a greater leadership role in promoting global order and stability.

Yuko Nakano is a fellow with the Japan Chair and associate director of the U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Yuko Nakano
Fellow, Japan Chair, and Associate Director, U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program