President Obama is no doubt congratulating himself on today’s news of tough new EU sanctions on Russia. He shouldn’t count his chickens.
Sanctions are one thing, but how rigorously will they be enforced? Several EU nations seem to be merely going through the motions and will no doubt prove creative in finding loopholes. The most obvious example is Italy, whose relations with Russia have been particularly cordial in recent years. Then there is France, for whom the crisis is also clearly an unwelcome damper on previously burgeoning relations. As for the UK’s David Cameron, although he likes to sound Churchillian, his core constituency, the London financial district, is undoubtedly already working 24/7 to get round the EU’s attempts to isolate Russian banks.
Then there is Germany. Whatever Angela Merkel may or may not think (and she seems to be a dove), German exporters are probably not minded to give up lucrative opportunities in Russia.
Germany moreover suffers a particular problem because in many advanced industries it shares the field with Japan. While few in Washington understand the significance of this, everybody at top level in Germany does: Japan will force Germany’s hand in undermining the sanctions.
Basically there is a sort of domino effect here: because Japanese corporations will find ways to circumvent the sanctions, German corporations will have to follow suit. Will the French and Italians be far behind?
Corporate Japan’s intent to undermine Obama’s initiative is not lessened by South Korea. Almost unreported in the American press, South Korea has openly stated it will not support the sanctions.
In any case, Japan has a long record of paddling its own canoe. The last war where Japan unequivocally supported the American side was the Korean war more than sixty years ago. Already by the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson led America into the Vietnam war, Japan maximized its opportunities. While it officially supported South Vietnam, this did not deter it from conducting significant trade with North Vietnam.
Even during America’s long stand-off with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Japan was never a completely reliable ally. This became notably apparent in the Toshiba Machine affair, in which Japan was revealed to have supplied highly sophisticated milling equipment that enabled the Soviets to render their submarines almost impossible for the U.S. Navy to track.
On some estimates that breach of security cost the United States many billions. Tokyo never administered more than a slap on the wrist to relevant Toshiba executives. Japanese citizens are rarely punished for boosting their nation’s exports.
In any case, Tokyo’s enthusiasm for Obama’s policy is hardly bolstered by the fact that Japan-Russian relations happen to have reached a particularly delicate stage lately. As I pointed out in a commentary last Sunday, before the Ukraine crisis blew up, Tokyo had come close to reaching agreement on the return of Russian-occupied, formerly Japanese-ruled islands to Japanese sovereignty. Getting those islands back is likely to weigh much more heavily with Tokyo any than wish to see Western rules of statecraft prevail in a part of Eastern Europe that most Japanese had never heard of.
Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key To Future Prosperity (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).