The past two weeks have featured a remarkable series of events that highlight big shifts in the geopolitics of East Asia. Each of them casts light on the opportunities and risks shaping that region and the world.
Xi in Moscow
Most of the news coverage has gone to Xi Jinping’s visit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Images of the Chinese and Russian presidents exchanging warm words, pledging to expand and deepen their commercial ties, and raising glasses together provided the embattled Putin with something he badly needs: the visible support of a powerful friend willing to embrace a man recently indicted by the International Criminal Court.
Beyond the show, Putin appears to have gotten little of substance from this meeting. We don’t know what the two men said privately, but Xi made no public call for ceasefire or issue threats to back Russia’s military if (when) a Chinese-sponsored compromise is not accepted by Kyiv and its NATO backers. The joint statement they agreed to made clear they were not establishing the “military-political alliance” that would quickly change the balance of power on the Ukrainian battlefield.
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China benefits strongly from trade with Russia (and now with oil imports at a significant discount), but Xi is also deeply sympathetic with Putin’s drive to challenge Western (especially U.S.) dominance of the international system. That’s why the two leaders are closer than any time since they toasted a friendship without limits three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022—and why we must continue to watch Xi’s evolving approach to Putin’s war.
Kishida in Kyiv
The near-simultaneous visit by Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to Ukraine was also striking. Kishida had to make this trip. Japan will host a G7 summit in Hiroshima in May, and he was the only G7 leader who had 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 any country at war since World War II, and Kishida didn’t limit his trip to Kyiv; he also went to the site of a mass grave in the city of Bucha to pay respects to Ukrainian victims of alleged Russian war crimes.
Most importantly, the timing of the visit, which coincided with Xi’s trip to Moscow, made for a bold statement. His March 21 stop in Bucha, where he pronounced himself “outraged by the cruelty” of Russian soldiers, highlighted the formal charge that Putin is a war criminal within hours of Xi lifting a glass of champagne to toast his Russian friend.
It’s a sign that Japan’s prime minister intends to be more diplomatically assertive and outspoken than most of his predecessors. That said, given China’s importance for Japan’s 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 will end Japanese export controls against South Korea and normalize their military and intelligence-sharing relations. They have also restored shuttle diplomacy, which was broken off in 2011.
To get there, the two governments had to finally resolve a long dispute over compensatory payments to Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s wartime occupation. That finally became possible because both sides decided they had more to fear from the expansion of China’s influence in East Asia and from potential North Korean aggression than domestic political benefit from keeping this controversy alive.
North Korea shakes a nuclear fist
Speaking of North Korea, the Japan-South Korea agreement was announced just hours after an increasingly belligerent DPRK launched yet another intercontinental ballistic missile to protest both the South Korea-Japan meeting in Tokyo and ongoing US-South Korean joint military exercises. Last weekend, North Korea staged what it called a nuclear counter-attack simulation against South Korea and the United States. Then on March 22, it fired multiple cruise missiles off its east coast toward Japan.
On the surface, all these stories might look like more of the same for a region in which it’s becoming harder for powerful countries 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 against the West. Japan’s government is pursuing a much more assertive 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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