- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Japanese prime ministers are not known for stealing the spotlight, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday managed to upstage Chinese President Xi Jinping during his high-profile summit in Russia by making a surprise visit to Kyiv for talks with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other top Ukrainian officials.

The dueling summits involving two East Asian leaders traveling to two warring European capitals are the latest in a growing list of convergences between Atlantic and Indo-Pacific alliances and rivalries.

Mr. Kishida, who will host a meeting of President Biden and other leaders of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations in May, rode a train from Poland on Tuesday morning to Kyiv. He denounced the Russian invasion as a “disgrace that undermines the foundations of the international legal order.”

It has been a busy month of high-stakes diplomacy for the low-profile, conservative Japanese leader as he prepares for the G-7 summit. He hosted South Korea’s president in Tokyo last week in a bid to ease bilateral tensions and traveled to Ukraine right after talks on upgrading relations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry said Mr. Kishida traveled to Kyiv to underscore the “unwavering” support of the G-7 powers as Ukraine tries to turn back a 13-month Russian invasion. In a gesture sure to provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Kishida visited a church in Bucha, the town outside Kyiv that has become synonymous with reported Russian military atrocities linked to the invasion.

“I really feel great anger at the atrocity upon visiting that very place here,” Mr. Kishida said.

SEE ALSO: U.S. fast-tracks refurbished M1 tank delivery to Ukraine

Mr. Kishida’s Kyiv trip was an unusual bit of stealth diplomacy for Tokyo.

“It is rare for a Japanese leader to make an unannounced trip to a foreign country,” Kyodo News reported, and the visit “had been kept secret until right before arrival.”

Though multiple Western leaders, including Mr. Biden, have visited war-torn Kyiv, analysts said the trip was unusual for the cautious Mr. Kishida.

Unlike the U.S. and leading NATO powers, Japan has not provided arms to Ukraine for the war. It has dispatched a wide range of nonlethal support, including drones, optical devices, uniforms, helmets, body armor, tents, medical kits and generators. According to statistics compiled by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Japan is the 10th-largest source of aid to Ukraine at roughly $7 billion and the only non-Western country on the list.

The Japanese prime minister was sending a message not only to Mr. Putin. His recent trips have unnerved China as well.

Beijing has complained loudly that Tokyo and Washington are collaborating to strengthen alliances across the Indo-Pacific to contain China’s economic and military rise.

India and Japan are members of the Quad security dialogue. India confronts China in the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean but remains amicable with Russia, which supplies India with arms and energy.

During the New Delhi summit, Mr. Kishida reiterated that Japan will support India’s maritime security and provide patrol vessels and other equipment. Mr. Modi accepted an invitation to participate in the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japanese officials said. Mr. Kishida has signaled that he has also asked Australia, Brazil, Comoros, the Cook Islands, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam to take part in the Hiroshima gathering.

Mr. Kishida “aims to strengthen solidarity with the so-called Global South and promote a free and open Indo-Pacific at the summit,” The Daily Yomiuri reported.

Six hours of talks

China’s Mr. Xi has also been stepping up his global diplomatic profile after securing a precedent-breaking third five-year presidential term this month. Mr. Xi’s Moscow summit follows what looks like a major diplomatic triumph for Beijing in the Middle East, brokering the restoration of diplomatic relations between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.

On the second day of their summit, Mr. Putin, Mr. Xi and their aides talked for six hours at the Kremlin. Discussions included a Chinese “peace plan” for the Ukraine war. The Biden administration, which has voiced suspicions that China may be contemplating military aid to Russia, said the proposal locks in some Russian land grabs in Ukraine’s fiercely contested Donbas region.

Mr. Putin praised the Chinese for floating a plan but did not endorse its provisions or its call for a cease-fire. Mr. Xi expressed solidarity with his host in the face of hostile U.S. and Western policies but did not explicitly endorse Mr. Putin’s decision to invade a neighboring country.

Mr. Xi said Beijing strongly supports a cease-fire in Ukraine and insisted that China has always taken an objective and impartial view of the conflict. Ukrainian officials are pressing for Mr. Xi to talk with Mr. Zelenskyy after he leaves Moscow on Wednesday.

Beijing and Moscow share no formal alliance. They call their relationship “an unlimited partnership.” China has expanded trade and energy exports from Russia despite Western sanctions over the past year, and Washington loudly criticizes Beijing for not pressuring Mr. Putin to pull back. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China shows “no responsibility” to hold Russia accountable for “atrocities committed in Ukraine.”

Chinese and Russian officials signed an accord on expanded economic cooperation during the summit, and Mr. Xi reportedly invited Mr. Putin to travel to China later this year. It was a timely show of support after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader on war crimes charges related to the Ukraine invasion.

In Washington, the Pentagon announced Tuesday that it was fast-tracking the delivery of M-1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, drawing on older, refurbished models that can be delivered to the battlefield by the fall.

In January, Mr. Biden said the U.S. would send Kyiv a total of 31 top-of-the-line M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, enough to outfit a Ukrainian armored battalion, but there was a hitch: They would be coming from the assembly line at General Dynamics and could take a year or more to arrive. The tanks now destined for Ukraine will be the older, but still formidable, M1A1 Abrams model.

“These will be excess hulls in our inventory that we will refurbish and refit,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. “It’s a very similar capability to the M1A2.”

Poland and other allies already had orders in the system for Abrams tanks. Gen. Ryder said he did not believe the delivery of the M1A1s will affect any other foreign military sales.

U.S. and NATO officials have said in recent weeks that China appears to be considering sending military aid and arms to Russia’s stressed military, but Mr. Xi’s government denies it. Iran has supplied military drones to Moscow, and Washington accuses North Korea of supplying artillery ammunition and rockets.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin confirmed in Beijing that Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin had discussed China’s Ukraine proposal. He said Russia has “carefully studied” the Chinese plan and “is open to peace talks.”

Asked about Mr. Kishida’s simultaneous trip to Kyiv, Mr. Wang said, “We hope Japan could do more things to de-escalate the situation instead of the opposite.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Andrew Salmon can be reached at asalmon@washingtontimes.com.

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