Russia Ups Pressure on Japan by Joining China in Joint Naval Exercise Near Disputed Islands

Dimitri Simes | July 5, 2022 | 6:06pm EDT
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A Russian Navy frigate. (File photo: Russia Defense Ministry)
A Russian Navy frigate. (File photo: Russia Defense Ministry)

Moscow ( – Amid tensions over Ukraine, Russia is stepping up its pressure on Japan by holding a series of joint military exercises with China near Japanese territorial waters and airspace, as well as seizing control of a vital gas project.

On Monday, Japan’s defense ministry said it had observed Chinese and Russian warships sailing “just outside of Japanese territorial waters” around the disputed Senkaku islands. It said a Russian frigate entered the contiguous zone near the islands at about 7 AM local time, and was joined by a Chinese frigate 40 minutes later.

Tokyo lodged a formal protest with Beijing, with deputy chief cabinet secretary Seiji Kihara telling reporters the government would “deal with the matter calmly, but firmly to protect the Japanese land, territorial waters and airspace.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian downplayed the incident, however, telling a briefing the same day that “the activities of Chinese vessels in the adjacent waters are legitimate and lawful.”

The Senkaku islands (known in China as the Diaoyu islands) in the East Cahina Sea are at the center of a decades-long territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing. Japan has administered the islands since 1895, but China asserts ownership dating back to the 14th century.

Although the islands themselves are uninhabited, they have strategic value due to their close proximity to potential oil and gas reserves, fishing grounds, and shipping routes.

(During the Obama administration the U.S. government made clear that since the Senkaku islands are administered by Japan,  the U.S. considers them as falling within the scope of the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty.)

Russia’s participation in a drill near the disputed islands comes amid growing tensions with Japan over the Ukraine conflict. Japan’s participation in Western-led sanctions against Moscow saw it added to the Kremlin’s list of “unfriendly countries.” Russia also suspended a longstanding fishing agreement with Japan.

Over the past month and a half, Russia and China have increased their joint military activities in the area.

On May 24, Russia and China flew a 13-hour joint bomber patrol over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea, while President Biden was visiting Tokyo for a summit of the Asia-Pacific Quad. The aircraft passed through Japan and South Korea’s air defense zones, prompting both countries to scramble their jets.

Yoshiyuki Sugiyama, former chief of staff of Japan's Air Self-Defense Force, told Nikkei Asia at the time the joint patrol demonstrated that military cooperation between Russia and China was becoming more sophisticated.

China’s state mouthpiece Global Times said the exercise demonstrated “a high level of military cooperation between the two major powers that contributes to peace and stability in the region and the world at a time when both countries are facing stern, provocative pressure from the US and the West.”

Then in mid-June, Japan’s defense ministry reported four Chinese warships sailing around Japan’s Honshu and Hokkaido islands. Several days later, a flotilla of seven Russian warships were seen completing a circuit around Honshu.

“The fact that about 10 Russian and Chinese ships sail around Japan on the same route in a short period of time is a display of the military presence of both countries around Japan,” Japan’s Defense Minister Nobou Kishi told a press conference on June 22.

Holding joint military exercises with China is not the only way Russia has moved to increase its pressure on Japan.

Last Thursday, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ordering the Sakhalin-2 gas project in Russia’s Far East – in which Japan is a major investor and beneficiary – to be transferred to a new domestic operator.

Foreign investors in Sakhalin-2 will have one month to ask the government to retain their existing shares in the project. Those who opt out or whose applications are rejected by the government will see their shares nationalized.

Japanese trading houses Mitsui and Mitsubishi own a collective stake of 22.5 percent in Sakhalin-2. No less significantly, about 10 percent of Japan’s total Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) imports come from the project.

Last March, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told lawmakers that despite tensions with Russia over Ukraine, Japan could not afford to withdraw from Sakhalin-2, which he said “contributes to the stable supply of long-term, low-cost liquefied natural gas.”

Mitsui CEO Takeshi Hashimoto made a similar argument on Sunday, telling the Financial Times that Japan did not have many viable options for reducing LNG from Sakhalin-2.

“We can’t use many nuclear power plants, so the power industry’s supply and demand balance is quite tight,” he said. “Nowadays, the LNG and coal spot market is quite expensive. This is one of the reasons why Japan is so reluctant to stop LNG imports from Russia.”

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