This picture shows Tokyo Electric Power'On May 15, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held the seventh meeting of the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security in his long quest to advance the reinterpretation of its ‘Pacifist’ Constitution and to allow finally for the exercise of Japan’s right to collective self-defense. During the meeting, the members of this panel of conservative security experts chaired by Shunji Yanai – the current President of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – exchanged their views on a plethora of scenarios and submitted an advisory report to the Prime Minister Abe, who had the following to say in his opening address:

“It has been over one year since this Panel was reopened in February of last year, and it has actually been seven years since this Panel was first formed in May 2007. (…) This Panel has raised specific scenarios (…) that are relevant to the ideal form of the legal basis for the security of this country based on changes to the security environment surrounding Japan. (…) The principle of security is that we must ensure the safety of Japan and resolutely protect the lives, freedoms, happiness, and peace of the public under any circumstances. I am resolved to advance serious discussions with the firm conviction that we will create the solid legal basis necessary for this.”

Sourabh Gupta of Samuels International Associates characterized in East Asia Forum the Abe administration as “determined to make Japan a more consequential power, reviving its economy as well as adopting a more proactive foreign policy.” He also named as the report’s key recommendations the “ones which call for the exercise of this right in aid of countries with close ties that are located along the sea lines of communication (SLOC) extending out to the Persian Gulf – even during a situation when Japan is not under direct attack.”

This is a major point and should not come as a surprise given Japan’s standing as a major exporting nation while, at the same time, being resource-poor and thus heavily dependent on primary maritime routes. Moreover, it is now apparent why Shunji Yanai has been picked to chair this national security panel.

On July 1, the Japanese Cabinet followed up on the advisory report with a cabinet decision to reinterpret Article 9 of the Constitution aimed particularly at – in the words of Richard Javad Heydarian -“prohibitions against developing a ‘war potential’.” While this marks another step towards Japanese collective self-defense it also implies a serious future geopolitical shift in Asia. Mr. Heydarian points in his article titled ‘Asia’s Most Dangerous Rivalry Heats Up: China vs. Japan’ to the most likely source of future regional instability in East Asia and, therefore, the need for Japan to play a greater role in regional security:

“deepening territorial disputes with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea [are forcing] Japan to take greater responsibility for its own national defense.” Beijing perceives this step as a renewed militarization of Japan with CCTV-America referring to the reinterpretation of the Japanese Constitution as “a brutal violation of its spirit” and writing further: “Beijing questions whether Japan will change its path of peaceful development, which has been upheld since World War Two. China has also protested Tokyo’s strategy of pushing a domestic political agenda by hyping up the ‘China threat’.” Note, however, that Japan trying to elevate its military profile is also likely to stir up tensions – again fueled by history and nationalism – with both North and South Korea.

In the Japanese Cabinet’s “Decision on Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People” from July 1, 2014, the geopolitical rationale for the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution is front and center: “During the 67 years since the Constitution of Japan came into effect, the security environment surrounding Japan has fundamentally transformed and is continuing to evolve, and Japan is confronted by complex and significant national security challenges.” Additionally and interestingly, the following wording in the cabinet decision seems to tie the shift in military posture also to Japan’s energy supply security:

“[A]s a result of careful examination in light of the current security environment, the Government has reached a conclusion that not only when an armed attack against Japan occurs but also when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and when there is no other appropriate means available to repel the attack and ensure Japan’s survival and protect its people, use of force to the minimum extent necessary should be interpreted to be permitted under the Constitution as measures for self-defense in accordance with the basic logic of the Government’s view to date.”

Here, Japan’s government acknowledges its general energy security vulnerability and finally attempts to give itself the broader mandate to protect and defend its energy interests in the Middle East, East Africa and India along the crucial sea lines of communication through the Indian Ocean. This, however, can only be part of the answer to Japan’s energy ‘angst’ in a region with mounting tensions. Due to the fact that the Japanese economy continues to post what are now chronic fiscal deficits alongside a sovereign debt exceeding 240 per cent of GDP, those budget realities will constrain defense spending. This is where Russia becomes relevant.

Strategically, there is no better time to pursue pragmatic closer relations with Russia – at least in the energy realm. Russia is in the process of marginalizing itself as a reliable energy supplier in Europe – at least in the eyes of the West – while facing increasing sanctions from the West. It could be argued that the political crisis around the Ukraine has to be strictly separated from the question of whether Russia can be a reliable energy supplier.

If the answer to the latter is yes, opportunities may abound especially given Russia’s long-term energy pivot towards Asia. Russia’s 30-year gas deal with China is the latest indication in this respect. Japan has a lot to gain from securing long-term pragmatic energy relations now. Russia will need to secure future stable oil and gas revenues, which may result in a reduction of Japan’s procuring cost of LNG – a pressing need given Japan’s budget realities and its increased military profile. Moreover, the Middle East continues to be  volatile, which naturally calls for geographic proximity to supersede any political considerations. Japan can also ill afford to allow China and Russia grow closer together.

Proposed Subsea Natural Gas Pipeline Route*

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Source: The Institute of Energy Economics (Japan) 

Lastly, “Moscow was (…) Japan’s fourth-largest supplier of LNG,” according to PFC Energy, “accounting for 10 percent of Tokyo’s imports.” This shows that an expanded pragmatic energy supply relationship between Russia and Japan is possible even though the unresolved Kuril islands dispute still looms large in the background. PFC Energy also adds that “Japan has been importing LNG from Russia’s Sakhalin terminal since 2009 while proposing to increase gas imports from Siberia through a new pipeline or more LNG shipments.” Note, any movement on these proposals could jeopardize competing LNG export projects in Australia and the US, which have not yet secured long-term pricing contracts in order to start the construction of respective facilities.

In sum, for Japan pursuing pragmatic closer energy ties with Russia now while the latter is falling further out of favor in Europe – its traditional energy export market – may matter strategically a great deal in the long term.

The table below, part of a paper prepared by the Energy Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Energy Economics (Japan) at the World Petroleum Congress held in Moscow on May 16 gives a very useful overview of considerations regarding closer Japan-Russia energy relations in addition to the arguments made above.

Implications of Considering Japan-Russia Gas Trade by Pipeline

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Source: The Institute of Energy Economics (Japan)

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