If you needed proof that the war in Ukraine is reverberating in Asia, look no further than the schedules of Japanese and Chinese leaders.
Both are on strategic foreign visits to opposing conflict zones.
Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, is in Kyiv, promising Ukraine’s president unwavering support and discussing reconstruction and humanitarian aid.
Meanwhile, China’s Xi Jinping is in Moscow and has been described as a friend and partner by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. China may claim to be neutral, but it appears to be more Moscow-friendly than an honest broker right now.
On Tuesday, Mr Xi said China would prioritise its ties with Russia and described the two countries as “great neighbouring powers”.
Given the events in Moscow, Mr Kishida’s parallel trip is remarkable in terms of optics and timing. So, what can we make of it?
It is unusual for a Japanese leader to travel abroad on the spur of the moment, and Mr Kishida is the first to visit a conflict-torn country since World War II.
The visit was kept under wraps until just before his arrival early Tuesday, citing security concerns.
During his visit, he will “pay tribute to the courage and patience of the Ukrainian people who are standing up to defend their homeland… and demonstrate solidarity and unwavering support,” according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Mr Kishida will also demonstrate his “complete rejection of Russia’s one-sided change to the status quo through invasion and force,” according to the statement.
Mr. Kishida has been under increasing pressure from his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party to visit Ukraine (LDP).
He was the only G7 leader who had not visited since Russia launched its invasion last year, and there had been calls for him to go before the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.
He had already secured one strategic diplomatic coup by meeting South Korea’s president last week in Tokyo, the first time in more than a decade. Normalization of relations with Seoul, intelligence sharing, and a united front against North Korea will all reassure Japan’s strategic ally, the United States.
Washington, no doubt, will welcome the visit to Ukraine.
The Chinese leader’s ongoing visit to Moscow is part of an effort to increase the country’s global clout. The presence of Japan’s leader in Ukraine at the same time sends a clear message about Japan’s position in this geopolitical turmoil.
This is no small accomplishment; Japan has a lot of balancing to do, particularly in its relationship with China.
For the first time in four years, both countries held security talks in Tokyo last month. Beijing expressed concern about Japan’s military buildup, while Tokyo criticized China’s military ties to Russia and suspected use of spy balloons.
Despite their current tensions, these are the world’s second and third largest economies, and an open channel of communication is critical.
Japan is also concerned about the conflict in Ukraine. There is widespread concern about potential parallels between the Russian invasion and a worst-case scenario of Chinese military aggression against Taiwan, which would almost certainly draw Japan into the fray.
We are not there yet, and may never be, but where each leader chose to be on Tuesday is telling.