The past two weeks have marked a remarkable series of events that highlight major changes in the geopolitics of East Asia. Each of them sheds light on the possibilities and risks that shape that region and the world.
You are in Moscow
Most of the news went to Xi Jinping’s visit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Images of the presidents of China and Russia exchanging warm words, pledging to expand and deepen their commercial ties, and raising glasses together gave an embattled Putin something he badly needed: visible support from a powerful friend ready to embrace the man he recently ousted. accused by the International Criminal Court.
Aside from the show, Putin doesn’t seem to have gotten much substance out of this meeting. We don’t know what the two men said privately, but Xi has not publicly called for a cease-fire or threatened to back the Russian military if (when) Kiev and its NATO backers do not accept a Chinese-sponsored compromise. The joint statement they agreed to make clear that they are not establishing a “military-political alliance” that would quickly change the balance of power on the Ukrainian battlefield.
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China benefits greatly from trade with Russia (and now from oil imports at a significant discount), but Xi also deeply sympathizes with Putin’s drive to challenge Western (especially US) dominance of the international system. That’s why the two leaders are closer than ever since they toasted their no-holds-barred friendship three weeks before the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine — and why we must continue to watch Xi’s evolving approach to Putin’s war.
Kishida in Kiev
The almost simultaneous visit of Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumi to Ukraine was also striking. Kishida had to go on this trip. Japan will host the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May, and he was the only G7 leader yet to visit Ukraine. But there are several reasons why this stop was still a big deal. It was the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to a country at war since World War II, and Kishida did not limit his travel to Kiev; he also went to the site of a mass grave in the town of Bucha to honor Ukrainian victims of alleged Russian war crimes.
Most importantly, the timing of the visit, which coincided with Xi’s trip to Moscow, made a bold statement. His March 21 stop in Bucha, where he declared he was “outraged by the cruelty” of Russian soldiers, highlighted the formal accusation that Putin is a war criminal just hours after Xi raised a glass of champagne to toast his Russian friend.
It is a sign that the Japanese prime minister intends to be more diplomatically assertive and open than most of his predecessors. However, given the importance of China to the Japanese economy, he will modulate his criticism and focus it mainly on Putin.
South Korea and Japan break new ground
In another sign of Japan’s more ambitious foreign policy, Kishida’s trip to Ukraine followed an important new agreement with South Korea. On March 16, he met with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in Tokyo to announce a diplomatic breakthrough between the two countries that would end Japanese controls on South Korean exports and normalize their military and intelligence-sharing relationship. They also resumed shuttle diplomacy, which was discontinued in 2011.
To get there, the two governments had to finally settle a long-running dispute over compensation payments to Korean victims of forced labor during the Japanese wartime occupation. This has finally become possible because both sides have decided that they fear expanding Chinese influence in East Asia and potential North Korean aggression more than the domestic political benefits of maintaining this controversy.
North Korea shakes its nuclear fist
Speaking of North Korea, the agreement between Japan and South Korea was announced just hours after the increasingly belligerent DPRK launched another intercontinental ballistic missile to protest both the South Korea-Japan meeting in Tokyo and the ongoing US-South Korean military exercises. Last weekend, North Korea staged what it called a simulated nuclear counterattack against South Korea and the United States. Then on March 22, it fired multiple cruise missiles from its east coast toward Japan.
On the surface, all these stories might seem like more of the same for a region where powerful countries are finding it increasingly difficult to balance their economic and security interests. But China has never before auditioned for such an ambitious role on the global stage. Russia is increasingly desperate for any form of Chinese support for the West. The Japanese government is pursuing a much more decisive foreign policy than in the past. And South Korea and Japan are becoming much more concerned about China’s intentions and North Korea’s growing capabilities.
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