Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has made a surprise visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, stealing some of the attention from Asian rival President Xi Jinping of China, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Kishida, who will chair the Group of Seven (G7) summit in May, met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday while touring Kyiv and paying tribute to those killed in Bucha, a town outside Kyiv that became a symbol of Russian atrocities against civilians.
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The two visits, about 800 kilometres (500 miles) apart, highlighted the nearly 13-month-old war’s repercussions for international diplomacy as countries line up behind Moscow or Kyiv.
Zelenskyy called Kishida a “powerful defender of the international order” and “a longtime friend of Ukraine”.
“I am pleased to welcome to Kyiv Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida – a truly powerful defender of the international order and a longtime friend of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said on social media.
He also confirmed he would participate in the upcoming G7 summit via video link.
“I accepted the prime minister’s invitation and will participate in the G7 summit in Hiroshima in an online format,” Zelenskyy said during a joint news conference.
“We passed over our formula across all channels. We invite you to dialogue. We are waiting for your answer,” Zelenskyy told a news conference, adding that Kyiv had not received an answer yet.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Kyiv, said Japan and China are at 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,” Dekker said.
Kishida, the only G7 leader who had not visited Ukraine, was under domestic pressure to do so. He became Japan’s first postwar leader to enter a warzone since World War II.
Due to its pacifist stance, Japan’s support for Ukraine has been limited to nonlethal equipment and humanitarian supplies. It has contributed more than $7bn to Ukraine and accepted more than 2,000 displaced Ukrainians, despite its strict immigration policy.
Tokyo also joined the US and European nations in sanctioning Russia over the invasion.
Growing international divide
China has instead refused to condemn Moscow’s aggression and criticised Western sanctions against Moscow, while accusing NATO and Washington of provoking Putin’s military action.
“Zelenskyy has said for quite some time that Ukraine is willing to speak to China [but] I don’t think we will be seeing the Chinese president coming to Kyiv,” Dekker said.
But Xi Jinping is likely to make a call with the Ukraine leader to report on what was said during the visit to Moscow, the reporter added.
David Boling, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, told Al Jazeera that Kishida’s visit had been an “open secret” for quite some time, but that it was still highly significant.
“The real story here is China. Japan is taking these steps because of China’s aggressiveness in the region and indicating that it’s going to push 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 that of China’s leader to Russia may have been a coincidence, but that it was nonetheless a signal of the growing international divide.
Kishida recently met with leaders from South Korea, Germany and India in a bid to deepen ties.
“I think what you’re seeing is a different Japan,” Boling said. “Ten or 20 years ago Japan was willing to sit on the sidelines in the game of geopolitics, but now [they] want to have some influence in this game because the stakes are too high.”