BANGKOK – Asia’s stake in Europe’s war was made crystal clear Tuesday when the leaders of the region's two richest countries sat in the capitals of Russia and Ukraine in strong shows of support for the opposing sides.
With the world's eyes on Chinese President Xi Jinping's first talks in Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida paid a surprise visit to Kyiv on the other side of the front lines.
The visits came as tension has been growing between the two regional rivals and top economic powers. China is seeking to expand its influence, and Japan has responded by increasing its defense spending and deepening ties with the United States and its allies.
While Xi's trip is meant to send a message to the West that its efforts to isolate Moscow over the invasion of Ukraine have fallen short, the contemporaneous visit to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by Kishida, whose country holds the Group of Seven presidency of leading industrial nations, strongly underlines the global nature of the opposition to the war.
“It's a very pointed statement,” said Euan Graham, a Singapore-based expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“It shows that there is more Asian skin in the game than many people may have thought. ... As Xi is holding hands with Putin, Kishida is clutching the hand of the president — it's a very powerful contrast and one that demonstrates that Ukraine isn't just a European or Atlantic concern.”
Kishida's decision to visit Kyiv just as Xi was in Moscow was clearly no coincidence, and likely meant to lessen any impact the Chinese leader had hoped to make, said Heigo Sato, a Takushoku University professor and expert on defense and security issues.
“The most important thing is to continue support for Ukraine, and it was necessary to demonstrate G-7 solidarity, with Europe, Japan and the United States working together to provide support,” he said.
Kishida has been among the most outspoken leaders in Asia against the invasion of Ukraine, and Japan has put in place strict sanctions against Russia and provided Ukraine with non-lethal military aid, humanitarian supplies and financial support.
Because of constitutional constraints proscribing Japan from providing Ukraine lethal weapons, Sato said Kishida’s trip was “a minimum requirement” for the chair of the G-7.
In a speech in January at Johns Hopkins University, Kishida stressed that he saw the conflict as having direct implications on the world order, and pledged to use the G-7 presidency to do what he could to strengthen the response of “like-minded countries.”
“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has marked the complete end of the post-Cold War world,” he said. “It has come to light that globalization and interdependence alone cannot serve as a guarantor for peace and development across the globe.”
Later, in what seemed to be a reference to Beijing's designs toward Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China claims as its territory, Kishida said that “China has some visions and claims on the international order that diverge from ours and that we can never accept.”
Kishida's visit to Moscow came just hours after he met with Narendra Modi in New Delhi, where he invited the Indian prime minister to attend the G-7 summit in May. Kishida also announced actions for a new Indo-Pacific initiative meant to counter China's growing influence.
Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, said in a Twitter post that for countries in the region, the visits highlight “two very different European-Pacific partnerships.”
“Prime Minister Kishida stands with freedom and Xi stands with a war criminal,” he wrote. “Which Pacific leader is the right partner for a brighter future?”
China's Foreign Ministry, meantime, accused Kishida of escalating tensions in Europe.
“The international community should uphold the position of promoting peace talks and creating situations for the political resolution of the Ukraine crisis,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing. “We hope Japan could do more things to de-escalate the situation instead of the opposite.”
Wang stressed that China has been “calling for a political solution to the Ukrainian crisis, opposing the Cold War mentality, and opposing unilateral sanctions.”
China and Russia have described Xi's three-day trip as an opportunity to deepen their “no-limits friendship,” and in a readout after the first day of talks, China said Xi had “stressed that there is a profound historical logic for China-Russia relationship to reach where it is today.”
China has thus far not provided military supplies to Russia, but has criticized Western sanctions and accused NATO and the United States of provoking the Russian invasion.
The sanctions have had the effect of increasing Russia's reliance on trade with China and moving the countries closer together.
The Moscow summit has the effect of underscoring and reinforcing the status of “Russia as a junior partner with China — economically, militarily and diplomatically,” said Robert Murrett, a retired U.S. vice admiral and professor at Syracuse University.
“Russia has an increasing dependence on China because of Moscow’s growing domestic and international challenges, and at the same time, China can derive selected advantages from the relationship while continuing to develop a range of other bilateral initiatives on the world stage,” he said in an analyst note.
The symbolism of Xi's visit to Moscow is enormous, Graham said.
“It's basically an endorsement of Putin's invasion and Putin will read it as such,” he said. “And it's a signal that Russia has China's support, at least diplomatically, and probably considerably more than that under the table.”
Japan has been historically at odds with both China and Russia, including over Russian-held islands that the former Soviet Union seized from Japan at the end of World War II, which has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending their war hostilities.
Because of its sanctions against Russia, Tokyo has faced reprisals from Moscow, which announced the suspension of talks on a peace treaty that included negotiations over the disputed islands.
Japan, noting growing threats from China and North Korea, has been expanding military cooperation beyond its main ally, the United States, and has developed partnerships with Australia, Britain, and other nations in Europe and Southeast Asia.
Kishida’s government last year adopted a new national security strategy under which Japan is deploying long-range cruise missiles to strengthen its strike-back capability, a major break from the country’s postwar self-defense-only principle.
While former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe invested time in pursuing a relationship with Putin that didn't really lead to any significant gain, Kishida has shown a greater willingness to be critical, Graham said.
But Kishida's trip to Kyiv will not likely worsen ties between Tokyo and Moscow, he said, adding that it would certainly please Washington.
“Russia doesn't want to put all its eggs in the China basket either, so the idea that Russia is going to suddenly escalate Japan either economically or militarily, they would be very foolish to do so,” he said.
“I think that's probably a calculation that the Japanese have run, that they're willing to bear that risk.”
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.