The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Key Asian nations join global backlash against Russia, with an eye toward China

On Feb. 23, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida issued economic sanctions on Russia, following its western allies amid Ukraine crisis. (Video: AP)
8 min

When Japan in recent days announced an aggressive set of sanctions to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, it wasn’t just Moscow it wished to signal, according to U.S. and Asian officials.

It was also China.

Japan, not typically a sanctions hawk, wanted to ensure that Beijing drew the right lesson from Russia’s invasion of a weaker neighbor. Moscow would pay a high price.

Some key countries in East Asia are joining with the West to take what is for them the exceptional step of imposing significant financial sanctions, officials and analysts say, brought together by outrage at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concern over China’s growing aggression in the region.

“We want to demonstrate what happens when a country invades another country,” said one Japanese official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

Not only did Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, freeze Moscow’s access to tens of billions of dollars’ worth of its currency reserves held in the central bank in Tokyo. It also joined with other Group of Seven nations and Australia to cut some Russian banks off from a global interbank messaging system known as SWIFT and freeze the assets of Russian officials and elites. It is also targeting individuals and organizations from Belarus.

In Japan and across Asia, an outpouring of support for Ukraine

Other East Asian countries followed suit. South Korea on Monday announced it would tighten export controls against Russia and also join the SWIFT cutoff of some banks. Singapore, which studiously seeks to avoid crossing the world’s major powers, also proclaimed it would impose export controls on items that can be used as weapons against Ukrainians and block certain Russian banks and financial transactions.

Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy that Beijing claims as its own, said its world-leading chip companies will stop exports to Russia and align with the West on the SWIFT sanction. It’s an important moment for Taiwan, which wants to show it can join the democratic alliance of countries, analysts said.

“At the core of the Indo-Pacific’s response is the fact that they know very well that China will be watching what happens in Europe very closely for signals on what might occur were it to make a similarly aggressive move on Taiwan, or elsewhere,” said former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, now president of the Asia Society.

In Japan and across Asia, an outpouring of support for Ukraine

Japan and other nations such as Singapore say it is important to defend the principle of state sovereignty and prohibitions against large powers changing the borders of smaller states.

“The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia undermines the very foundation of the international order as an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said this week. “It is critical for Japan to unite with the G-7 and the wider international community and take resolute actions in response.”

Respect for the territorial integrity of nations “is existential for small states like Singapore,” the Singaporean Embassy in Washington said in a statement.

Not all the countries of the Indo-Pacific have joined in. India, which has a deep interest in deterring Chinese aggression, at the same time relies heavily on Russia for defense purchases and refrained from imposing any sanctions. With the exception of Singapore, all the Southeast Asian states, which have relationships with both Russia and China, stayed away from sanctions.

“China will have noticed the really strong and unified action by the developed countries in response to the Russian invasion … but they will have been also greatly encouraged by the fact that most countries in Asia are basically sitting on their hands,” said Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at Australia’s Lowy Institute. “That’s what they would hope for in a Taiwan conflict.”

Taiwan's chipmaking giant TSMC begins halting deliveries to Russia in response to US sanctions

Japan’s evolution on sanctions is noteworthy. It had a tepid response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and four years later was alone among G-7 countries in declining to expel Russian intelligence officers after Moscow’s attempted assassination of a former Russian spy on British soil.

Japan’s new boldness reflects its wariness of China’s growing assertiveness as well as of worsening cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan, said the Japanese official. “China has a bigger presence and the situation in Taiwan is more complicated and tense,” the official said.

And for Japan, that’s an existential challenge, said Atsuko Higashino, European politics expert at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki. Moreover, she said, Japan sees the Western alliance as essential to its defense.

“If something happens in Taiwan, it is a big security challenge for Japan as well,” she said. “We have to have the U.S., Europe, et cetera, like-minded countries, to help Japan build a strategy.”

It also follows a change in leadership, said Danny Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia in the Obama administration. Japan’s prime minister, Kishida, “is very much a realist and has been willing to stand up to Russia, and more broadly, to China,” said Russel, vice president for international security at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Punitive actions against Russia, including imposing sanctions on its president, Vladimir Putin, are viewed as an important signal to China and its president, Xi Jinping, officials and analysts said. Beijing has in recent months made repeated incursions into Taiwan’s airspace, which Taipei says is designed to stress Taiwan’s air forces but which China defends as protecting its sovereignty.

China not emerging as lifeline for sanction-slammed Russian economy

China is not expected to move against Taiwan in the immediate future, analysts said, noting Xi will not want to risk a destabilizing conflict as he is seeking to cement his third term at the 20th Party Congress this fall. “But once we get on the other side of that,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “there’s a real concern.”

Russia’s war on Ukraine “has been an alarming wake-up call for the countries in the Indo-Pacific, not just in Europe,” Glaser said. “It has underscored the importance to countries like Japan and Australia of alliances — how important they are in protecting their interests and potentially deterring but also pushing back against a similar kind of aggression in Asia.”

Some of the countries also have been motivated by concerns they would look out of step with America’s other allies.

Tokyo and Seoul watched closely as Britain, France and Germany lined up behind the United States against Russia, in particular, the decision by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to halt the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

“Every Asian nation was watching the Nord Stream 2 decision extremely closely,” said one Asian diplomat, who, like several others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. “London always follows Washington, but when Berlin and Paris get in line so quickly, it sends a strong message to other allies.”

Amid the roar of nationalism, a few antiwar voices in China emerge over Ukraine crisis

U.S. officials also pressed Asian allies to help bolster European energy supplies by swapping their liquefied natural gas orders with Europe — a significant request given fears that Russia could cut off Europe’s gas supplies in the event of a conflict.

Japan quickly accepted the U.S. request and South Korea is considering doing the same, according to diplomats familiar with the situation. The request was simplified by U.S. officials coming to Tokyo and Seoul with permissions in hand by Gulf suppliers to transfer the gas to Europe instead of Asia, said the diplomats.

In early February, Tokyo agreed to divert surplus LNG cargoes to Europe. Initial shipments of about 210,000 tons are due to begin arriving in early March, with more likely in April, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Last week, Kishida said he had no concern that diverting energy to Europe would immediately affect Japan’s supply, noting that the country was holding about 240 days’ worth of oil reserves in both national and private sources.

Singapore’s choice to join sanctions on Russia was “almost unprecedented,” said Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The last time the city-state imposed unilateral sanctions was after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978.

But Singapore’s reputation as a global financial center in the Pacific is at stake, said the Lowy Institute’s McGregor. To retain its credibility, he said, “I don’t think they can sit out action against Russia when just about every country is taking it.”

Lee reported from Seoul. Lily Kuo in Taipei, Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo and Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.