Kishida’s surprise Kyiv visit bolsters Japan’s image as defender of peaceful rules-based order


Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and Japan's PM Fumio Kishida arriving for a meeting at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv on March 21. - AFP

TOKYO (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping stood on opposite fences of the Ukraine-Russia war on Tuesday (March 21), their concurrent visits to rival capitals in the name of promoting peace underscoring global chasms.

Kishida met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv for nearly three hours, just as Mr Xi sat down with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Both were on their first visits since Feb 24, 2022, the day explosions rang out across Ukraine.

“It creates a really striking image of Asia divided into two blocks,” Dr James D.J. Brown of Temple University Japan told The Straits Times.

“Although China has sought to present itself as a mediator, in reality it is very much on the Russian side.”

And in what appears to be a warning shot, Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that it flew two Tu-95 nuclear-capable strategic bombers over neutral waters off Japan in a seven-hour operation.

The timing of Kishida’s visit to Kyiv was pointed and uncanny. The arrangements were top-secret, with the Prime Minister hampered by rigid parliamentary attendance rules and a postwar tradition not to visit an active war zone.

Given the ongoing Diet session, Kishida would first have to secure a leave of absence from a bipartisan committee. But revealing Kyiv as his intended destination poses a security risk given Japan’s propensity for media leaks.

Thus, Japan worked in secret with India and Poland in a subterfuge cross-border operation. PM Kishida was, on paper, supposed to be visiting India from Sunday to Wednesday. But his schedule was kept deliberately vague.

All key events, including a summit with Indian PM Narendra Modi and a keynote to announce his upgraded Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, were on Monday, and Tuesday entirely blank.

In the wee hours of Tuesday, PM Kishida sneaked off to Poland via a private chartered jet, leaving behind a large travelling contingent of government officials and reporters in India.

The media embargo was lifted only two hours into a 10-hour train journey to Kyiv from the Polish border city of Przemysl. The trip has been welcomed across the political divide in Japan, with opposition leaders saying that they understood the need for stealth arrangements.

“It was quite difficult to arrange this visit, and this was one of the few windows of opportunity,” Dr Brown said.

Kishida had stated his desire to visit Kyiv before he hosts Group of Seven (G-7) leaders for a Hiroshima summit from May 19 to 21, non-resident fellow Satoru Nagao of Hudson Institute said, noting that Japan was also gearing up for a series of local elections in April.

Zelensky had personally invited Kishida to visit during a January phone call, and Mr Kishida is the last G-7 leader to visit Ukraine. His first stop was in the formerly-occupied town of Bucha, where he laid flowers and mourned the dead at mass graves.

He said: “The world was astonished to see innocent civilians in Bucha killed one year ago. I feel intense anger at the atrocities committed at this very place.”

Kishida is also the first leader to visit Bucha after the International Criminal Court had, on March 17, issued an arrest warrant for Putin over alleged war crimes.

He then went to the bunkered-down presidential office for talks with Zelensky, conveying his “respect for the courage and perseverance of Ukrainians who have stood up to defend their homeland and freedoms”.

Zelensky, referring to Kishida by his first name “Fumio”, told a joint news conference that Japan is a “strong guardian of the international order and a long-time friend of Ukraine”.

Since the war began, Japan has pledged US$7.1 billion (S$9.5 billion) in financial, humanitarian and other forms of aid and provided surveillance drones, bulletproof vests, helmets, winter battle dress, tents, cameras and binoculars, among other things.

On Tuesday, Kishida pledged a further US$470 million in aid for Ukraine’s energy grid, and US$30 million in non-lethal military equipment through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

In a joint statement, they confirmed their “unwavering solidarity”, upgrading their bilateral ties to a “Special Global Partnership” and condemning “in the strongest possible terms the illegal, unjustifiable and unprovoked aggression”.

The statement added, alluding to China, that they “concurred that maintaining and intensifying sanctions on Russia is indispensable to constrain Russia’s war effort, and they expected third states not to evade and undermine these measures”.

The two leaders also agreed to start talks on the sharing of classified information, with Zelensky accepting Kishida’s invitation to participate in the G-7 summit by teleconference.

Dr Brown said: “It is another step on Japan’s road towards maturing as a security actor, being able to visit to a war zone and play a real role in providing support to other countries.”

While there have been calls for Japan to go even further and provide offensive weapons, Dr Brown pointed out that the export of non-lethal equipment was already a significant step.

Japan has been bound by its Three Principles on Arms Exports that, since 1967, has barred the export of even non-lethal equipment such as helmets or bulletproof vests to countries that are involved in conflict. An exception was made for Ukraine.

While Xi is expected to speak to Zelensky by phone soon, Dr Brown does not see it likely that Kishida will engage Putin.

“Ukraine may feel that they have to be polite towards China. But the proposal is not welcome because of concerns that any ceasefire will buy Russia more time to rebuild up its forces,” Dr Brown said.

“The view in Japan and the G-7 is that if Russia really wants peace, that can be achieved at any time by withdrawing from Ukraine.”

The Yomiuri newspaper echoed this in an editorial on Wednesday: “If China intends to seek a solution to the crisis in Ukraine, it is reasonable that it first ask Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine immediately. If it deepens cooperation with Russia, it will not be able to win the understanding of the international community.”

The Sankei News, calling on Japan to consider more extensive support, said in an editorial on Wednesday: “Even if there is a quantitative limit, it will be desirable if Japan can further relax its restrictions further on arms transfers, so that providing lethal military equipment to repel invaders can be an option.”

Kishida, who has left Kyiv, will meet Polish President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday before returning to Japan on Thursday.

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