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Japan in diplomatic quandary after slapping Russia with fresh sanctions

Japan, following European Union and the United States, on July 28 announced it would also be extending its sanctions on Russia. By doing this Japan has put itself in a diplomatic quandary.

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced it would be supporting moves by the Group of Seven (G7) and would freeze assets held in the country by those directly involved in Russia's annexation of Crimea or in the instability in eastern Ukraine, and would freeze funding for new projects in Russia and restrict imports from Crimea.

The move was swiftly denounced by the Russian Foreign Ministry, who blasted it as being "unfriendly and shortsighted." Moscow said Tokyo had made a grave misinterpretation of the real situation in Ukraine.

Moscow has repeatedly maintained that the threat of sanctions was not just inappropriate in light of the circumstances, but counterproductive to ties, as Russia has no involvement in the conflict in Ukraine.

Now, as political analysts have pointed out, Tokyo will have to deal with the fallout of taking such swift punitive measures along with the EU and the United States, especially when in countries like Australia, cooler heads have prevailed.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has inferred that investigators' safe passage to the MH17 crash site, the repatriation of all the victims, and the concrete finding of facts, should take precedence over knee-jerk sanctions.

"It's plain to see that Japan is clearly trying to walk a tightrope between appeasing its closest ally the U.S. and not overly alienating Russia over its sanctions," Japanese Affairs commentator Kaoru Imori told Xinhua.

"Compared to other countries, Japan's sanctions on Russia are actually a tacit nod to Moscow that it's not fully committed to the idea and in the longer-term still values its ties with Moscow, " he said.

But it would appear, however, that Moscow doesn't quite see it this way.

Japan might be hoping that its relatively lenient stance towards Moscow may mean that ongoing talks about a territorial dispute between the two countries and continued energy cooperation, may continue unhindered, but some analysts believe that Japan's actions may have seriously derailed ties.

"Now Japan finds itself in a precarious position. Earlier this week Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga could not confirm whether Tokyo would make good on its invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan this autumn, an error that Moscow has said would be wholly unethical," political analyst Teruhisa Muramatsu told Xinhua.

"The visit by Putin may have been a chance for Abe and Putin to accelerate talks on the territorial dispute, but this seems somewhat unlikely now, as Moscow has said that Tokyo's recent moves against Russia will harm bilateral relations and have a retrogressive effect on recent diplomatic progress," Muramatsu said.

He added that the long-standing territorial dispute was hoping to be settled at the earliest possible opportunity by Abe, who has repeatedly said he is keen to unlock the "untapped potential" of the Japan-Russia relationship and sign a peace treaty.

But as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised Abe on Friday for imposing additional sanctions on Russia, it would appear that Tokyo's kowtowing to the United States could be to its long-term detriment and see talks on the territorial dispute and joint energy cooperation, such as the liquefied natural gas project in Sakhalin, indefinitely shelved.

Imori pointed to the Russian foreign ministry's unwavering tone on the issue, suggesting that not only is Japan currently in a diplomatic quandary over Russia, losing its grip over the territorial dispute because of its hasty sanctions, what japan has done could, in the very worst-case scenario, lead to a military standoff between Tokyo and Moscow over the contested isles.

He said regardless of Tokyo's leniency in sanctioning Moscow -- intended to ensure that bilateral dialogue on the territorial dispute could continue -- Russia believes relations have already been seriously impaired to the point that they have regressed and Tokyo has been dishonest in its dealings with Moscow and unable to act independently from Washington.

The severity of the situation has been underscored by Russia's foreign ministry in a statement.

The statement says, "Japan's stunt proves that Tokyo's numerous assurances of attempting to continue its efforts in developing relations with Russia are simply a smokescreen covering the inability of Japan's politicians to break out of Washington's wake and carry out their own individual line of policy that corresponds to the root national interests of their country."

[Source: By Jon Day, Xinhua, Tokyo, 01Aug14]

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