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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his address to the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his address to the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2022. (Alexey Nikolsky/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - A strong international response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is critical to deterring China from embarking on territorial conquests in Taiwan or the South China Sea, said Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi.

“China has been carefully observing the current situation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and they are paying particularly close attention to what kind of reactions the international community has been taking,” Kishi told The Washington Post during an interview in Washington on Thursday.

The top Japanese defense official, speaking through an interpreter, said the world’s response will weigh heavily on Beijing’s “actions in the Asian region going forward.”

“If the international community somehow allows or condones Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, it might send a wrong message that such actions can be tolerated in other parts of the world, including the Indo-Pacific,” Kishi said. “From that perspective, such actions of Russia cannot be tolerated.”

Managing China’s rise is a top priority for President Joe Biden, who will be visiting Asia later this month. His administration is poised to unveil a long-awaited China strategy in a speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the coming days. The address, originally scheduled for Thursday, was postponed after Blinken tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday.

China’s military spending has more than doubled over the past decade, spurring fears that it will expand its dominion over disputed waters in the South China Sea or the island of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory and has threatened to retake by force if necessary.

Tokyo, which has historically shied away from conflicts outside of Asia, has joined the United States and the European Union in imposing multiple rounds of crippling sanctions against Moscow over the Ukraine conflict. It has frozen Moscow’s access to tens of billions of dollars’ worth of its currency reserves held in the central bank in Tokyo, cut off several Russian banks from the global interbank messaging system known as SWIFT and frozen assets of Russian officials and elites.

Japan’s ministry of defense has provided Ukraine with drones, bulletproof vests and humanitarian aid, and accepted evacuees from Ukraine using Japanese aircraft. In response, Russia has permanently barred entry to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and more than 60 other cabinet ministers, officials, journalists and scholars. On Wednesday, Russia’s foreign ministry accused Tokyo of launching an “unprecedented anti-Russian campaign” that has destroyed “good neighborly ties” and damaged “the Russian economy.”

Nevertheless, Kishi said Japan “will continue as much support as we can to Ukraine.” That message was echoed this week by Kishida who warned during a visit to Britain that “Ukraine may be East Asia tomorrow.” Kishida said that Japan plans to freeze the assets of 140 additional Russians and Russian banks and that it would stop exporting advanced technology to Russia.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed Kishida’s comment, saying that Japan is hyping up a potential Chinese threat to gain public support to increase its defense spending. When pressed why Japan was noticeably absent following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Kishi said the world “has changed since the annexation.”

“During the last time, the response of the international community was not as united as this time,” he said. “The international community carefully looked and observed what happened then and that helped us move faster this time.”

That unity is not lost on Beijing, but analysts say the lessons China learns are far from certain. “China is clearly watching the forceful response from democratic countries, and they are likely surprised by its strength and unity,” said Jacob Stokes, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “At the same time, Beijing might conclude that China’s larger role in the global economy or Taiwan’s unique political situation might be enough to prompt a weaker response. Kishida’s comments are meant to disabuse Chinese leaders of such notions.”

Chinese officials say the two disputes have little to do with each other. “These are totally different things. Ukraine is a sovereign state, while Taiwan is an inseparable part of China’s territory,” wrote Chinese ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, in a column following the invasion. “We are committed to peaceful reunification, but we also retain all options to curb ‘Taiwan independence.’”

U.S. officials have long feared that the growing ties between Russia and China could dampen efforts to raise the economic and military costs of Russia’s invasion. But thus far, while China has continued doing business with Moscow, it has not bailed out Russia militarily or economically. “For now we’re not seeing significant support from China for Russia’s military actions,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

Beyond China, Kishi noted that North Korea’s streak of ballistic missile tests - more than a dozen this year - is prompting discussions in Tokyo about developing the capability to strike enemy military installations with its own fighter jets.

The possibility of Japanese fighter jets entering the airspace of an enemy country has worried some of Tokyo’s neighbors, including South Korea, given Japan’s imperial past. Kishi would not forecast the outcome of those deliberations but said Japan must consider “what we should do to protect our people.”

U.S. officials are hoping for an improvement in relations between Tokyo and Seoul - it’s two most important East Asian allies - following the election of a new government in South Korea. South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-Yeol has said he would like to improve relations with Japan and increase dialogue.

Kishi said he will “ensure close communication with the new administration of Korea so that we can strengthen our Japan-U.S.-ROK trilateral cooperation,” he said, referring to the Republic of Korea. “I hope that the new Present Yoon will exercise his leadership toward resolving the various pending issues between Japan and South Korea,” he said.

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The Washington Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tokyo contributed to this report.


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