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Foreign Policy

Inside Kishida’s Surprise Visit to Ukraine

Apr 04, 2023
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s lightning visit to Ukraine on March 21 took place amid the China-Russia summit, which was going on in Moscow. The visit attracted wide international attention. According to some analysts, Japan, as the host of the upcoming G7 summit in May, needed the Kiev visit to demonstrate Western solidarity in supporting Ukraine against Russia and countering a China-Russia axis. In my view, Kishida’s visit reflected Japan’s intent to reposition itself politically, diplomatically and strategically.

The first element, domestic politics, entails a desire to establish an image of assertive leadership by Kishida and his Liberal Democratic Party by breaking the tradition, in place since the end of World War II, that a prime minister does not visit a country at war.

At the end of 2022, Japan updated three key security documents, including the new National Security Strategy, and proposed to significantly increase defense spending and counterstrike capability, which marked multiple breakthroughs in the country’s postwar security policy. Kishida also promised non-lethal defense equipment to Ukraine in another step toward becoming a “normal” country. He and the LDP could advertise these achievements as a turning point in postwar Japanese diplomacy.

Security and diplomatic breakthroughs will help boost their popularity, given that Japan will hold local elections in April and that Kishida may dissolve the House of Representatives and hold a general election before his term as leader of the ruling party ends, or even this year. In other words, Japan’s national agenda — to become a normal political and strategic power — seems to coincide with the desire of Kishida and the LDP to secure a long-term ruling position.

The second element in play is Japan’s pursuit of leadership in setting a global diplomatic agenda. By linking European security with Asian security, Japan is attempting to shape diplomatic agendas on international platforms, including the G7 — especially in crafting perceptions of China. The joint statement issued after Kishida’s Ukraine visit not only stressed the inseparable security of Europe, the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific but also talked about the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

It has been reported that the G7 summit in May will consider China as a separate agenda item for the first time, focusing on the so-called Taiwan emergency. Japanese leaders have spoken many times about the idea that today’s Ukraine could be tomorrow’s East Asia. Japan believes that Europe and the United States are not paying sufficient attention to East Asia because of the Ukraine crisis and that Japan, as the only Asian member of the G7, should try to show the Europeans and Americans that members need to confront the China challenge (or even threat) together. In this sense, Japan is moving to take up a pioneering role in the G7 when it comes to crafting negative views of China. In this way, it expects to establish itself as a leader in opinion-making and agenda-setting.

The third element is demonstrated in Japan’s attempt to be the pivot point between the West and the global South. By strengthening strategic cooperation with India and other core countries in the South, Japan seeks to steer developing countries toward understanding and supporting Western positions, believing this will make Japan more visible strategically in the Western world.

In the wake of Ukraine conflict, many developing countries have chosen not to take sides. The U.S. has not gained widespread support in the South for its position and narrative. Japan’s values-based Indo-Pacific strategy has also caused concerns among developing countries over regional divisions, including those between ASEAN countries. Japan believes that success in attracting and uniting these countries will be to its strategic and diplomatic advantage.

During his visit to India, Kishida announced a new plan to promote his free and open Indo-Pacific vision. The plan identifies an international order based on the rule-of-law-as a key pillar in an effort to attract more developing countries by reducing ideological overtones. It also sees Japan and India as pivotal in the strategic quest to connect the West and global South.

The desire to become a normal great power, a desire for a leadership position in shaping perceptions and setting a diplomatic agenda — positioning itself as the pivot between the West and the global South — were the main drivers of Kishida’s visit to Ukraine. But to what extent Japan’s triple logic can be achieved is clearly questionable. Acts to increase military strength and become a normal state are likely to run into many constraints within Japan and cause concerns with neighbors across the region.

Demonstrating diplomatic leadership by crafting negative perceptions of China not only damages bilateral relations but also reduces the space for Japanese diplomatic maneuvers. In addition, Japan’s view of an international order is different from America’s democracy-based order, but it is still based essentially on painting China and Russia as villains and smells of ideology and double standards.

It may be understandable that Japan, as the world’s third-largest economy, wants to unite many southern countries with a revised Indo-Pacific strategy and that it hopes to play a bigger role in the international community. However, its strategies and tactics, being short of inclusiveness, are not sustainable.

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