Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has made a surprise visit to Kiev, stealing some of the attention from China’s Asian rival President Xi Jinping, who was meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Kishida, who will chair the Group of Seven summit in May, met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday while touring Kiev and paying tribute to the dead in Bucha, a city outside Kiev that has become a symbol of Russian atrocities against civilians.
The two visits, about 800 kilometers (500 miles) apart, highlighted the implications of the nearly 13-month-old war for international diplomacy now that countries are behind Moscow or Kiev.
Zelenskyy called Kishida a “vigorous defender of international order” and “an old friend of Ukraine”.
“I am delighted to welcome to Kiev the Prime Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida – a truly powerful defender of international order and an old friend of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said on social media.
He also confirmed that he would participate in the upcoming G7 summit via video link.
“I have accepted the prime minister’s invitation and will participate online in the G7 summit in Hiroshima,” Zelenskyy said at a joint press conference.
As Putin received China’s Xi in Moscow, Zelenskyy said he had “offered China to become a partner in the implementation of the peace formula.”
“We have passed on our formula across all channels. We invite you to enter into a dialogue. We are waiting for your reply,” Zelenskyy told a press conference, adding that Kiev had not yet received a reply.
Kiev reporter Stefanie Dekker said Japan and China are on opposite ends of the political spectrum when it comes to the war in Ukraine.
“Japan has always supported Ukraine with humanitarian needs, but not militarily because that goes against its pacifist charge,” said Dekker.
Kishida, the only G7 leader who had not visited Ukraine, was under domestic pressure to do so. He became Japan’s first post-war leader to enter a war zone since World War II.
Because of its pacifist stance, Japan’s support for Ukraine has been limited to non-lethal equipment and humanitarian supplies. It has contributed more than $7 billion to Ukraine and taken in more than 2,000 displaced Ukrainians, despite strict immigration policies.
Tokyo also joined the American and European countries in punishing Russia for the invasion.
Growing international divide
China has instead refused to condemn Moscow’s aggression and criticized Western sanctions against Moscow, while accusing NATO and Washington of provoking Putin’s military action.
“Zelenskyy has been saying for some time that Ukraine is willing to talk to China (but) I don’t think we will see the Chinese president come to Kiev,” Dekker said.
But Xi Jinping is likely to call Ukraine’s leader to report back on what was said during the visit to Moscow, the reporter added.
David Boling, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, told Al Jazeera that Kishida’s visit had been an “open secret” for some time, but it was still very important.
“The real story here is China. Japan is taking these steps because of China’s aggressiveness in the region and the fact that it is showing signs of pushing back,” Boling said.
The analyst added that the fact that the Japanese prime minister’s visit to Ukraine took place on the same day as the Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow may have been a coincidence, but was nevertheless a signal of the widening international divide.
Kishida recently met with leaders from South Korea, Germany and India in an effort to strengthen ties.
“I think what you’re seeing is a different Japan,” Boling said. “Ten or 20 years ago, Japan was willing to stay on the sidelines in the game of geopolitics, but now they want to have some influence in this game because there is too much at stake.”