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America's President Barack Obama (center), Russia's President Vladimir Putin (fourth from right) and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzō Abe (far right) walk with other G8 leaders in Ireland in June, 2013

Sino-Russian deal leaves Japan in the lurch

, Shale Plays Media

Wednesday’s historic energy deal between Russia and China will spell impending trouble for Japan, which has to rely on Russia for its energy needs but maintains close diplomatic relations with the United States.

The deal, negotiated by China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during the latter’s diplomatic visit, outlines a 30 year trade agreement between the two superpowers wherein Russia will sell $400 billion of natural gas to its neighbor. It’s a big victory for Putin, who has faced sanctions and threats in the wake of Russia’s February annexation of the Crimean peninsula. It’s a win for Jinping too, as China seeks a way to reduce pollution from coal energy.

That’s a decidedly rosier outlook than Japan now faces.

Russia has been a major supplier of Japanese energy since 2011, when the Fukushima nuclear disaster forced a massive shift to fossil fuels for the country’s power needs. It imported 8.6 million metric tons of natural gas from Russia in 2013, compared with zero in 2008.

As tensions between Putin and the western world escalate, Japan may find itself in the unenviable position of having to pick sides. The United States considers the island nation one of its closest allies, and the two enjoy close economic, military and political partnerships. If President Obama imposes further sanctions against Moscow, Japan may be forced to abandon its energy partnerships in Russia, as it did with a similar energy venture in Iran in 2010.

Related: China signs 30-year deal for Russian natural gas

The Japanese government currently has a partnership with Russian corporation Rosneft in gas drilling operations on the island of Sakhalin, which lies between the countries. The two have claimed it back and forth for centuries, most recently when Russia wrested control near the end of World War II.

On the other hand, if Japan hews too closely to American agenda Russia may decide it’s easier to give its business to China, where it has established guaranteed sales and a much closer political ideology.

That would create an energy shortage Japan has no easy way to fill. The US has banned exports of petroleum products since the energy crisis of the 1970s, and would be unable to step in to fill the gap. And though recent talks hint that the ban may soon be lifted, pending trade agreements with the European Union and especially Ukraine mean Japan won’t find itself a top priority.

Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s Trade and Industry Minister, has fallen in lockstep with the US in condemning Russia’s annexation but stopped short of naming any actions the country would take to express this displeasure.

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