It has been a very surprising two weeks for those who follow diplomacy in East Asia. Shortly following China’s sudden announcement of a peace agreement brokered in Beijing between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a high profile visit to Moscow on March 20, in pursuit of what could be another diplomatic coup for China: a ceasefire and roadmap for peace in Ukraine.
The next day, in the middle of Xi’s three-day trip, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio made an unexpected visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, potentially undermining Xi’s efforts and underscoring tensions between the two Asian powers as they jockey for influence in the international arena. Understanding the meaning of these developments requires a closer look at the larger context of China and Japan’s recent international diplomatic efforts.
China appears to be in the midst of a diplomatic offensive. After scoring a major victory in the Middle East, Beijing has immediately turned its attention to the main international issue of today: Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Xi is eager for China to be seen as a responsible rising power with a stabilizing influence on world peace, especially in the context of the United States’ policy of competition with and containment of China. China’s commitment to multipolarity as a practical strategy to break the U.S. dominance of global political and economic networks means diplomatic offensives of this kind are likely to continue, as Xi’s international diplomacy forms a key part of his domestic policy and the image he wishes to project at home and abroad. At the same time, Chinese foreign policy vis-a-vis Taiwan, Sino-U.S. conflict, and Chinese maritime claims have all become more assertive in recent years.
China’s increasing assertiveness abroad has Tokyo on edge. Fearing a conflict over Taiwan or other flashpoints, including China’s claims over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (which China calls the Diaoyu Islands), Japan has prioritized military spending and strengthened its military cooperation with South Korea and other regional and international partners. Experts believe that this build-up is based on Japanese assessments that war with China may come sooner rather than later, and that the United States may not be a reliable partner. Kishida, formerly the longest serving Japanese foreign minister (2012-2017), has been sounding the alarm about Chinese intentions and has promised to embark on a new era of realist diplomacy. In doing so, he frequently references the war in Ukraine, often repeating that “East Asia is the Ukraine of tomorrow.”
Xi in Moscow, Kishida in Kyiv
The meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi was remarkably warm and personal, with Putin greeting Xi as his “good old friend,” and Xi reciprocating by emphasizing his personal ties and “close contact with President Putin.” Xi went on to stress the strategic importance of close relations with Russia, “a strategic choice made by China based on its own fundamental interests” and based on a shared interest in “world multipolarization” and “the democratization of international relations.”
Ukraine was one of the main topics of discussion, including China’s proposal for a political settlement, which was officially released by the government last month. The proposal offers a mix of vague statements like “abandon Cold War mentality” and “respect sovereignty” and specific actions aimed at drawing down hostilities and beginning dialogue, from “facilitating grain exports” to “protecting POWs.” Unsurprisingly, it does not propose any specific terms of a final settlement, and as such is more of a roadmap to peace talks than a settlement proposal.
Russian officials, who say they are open to peace talks, said that they have “carefully studied China’s position paper” and that Russia “welcomes China to play a constructive role in this regard.”
Despite some reports that see China in the process of replacing the United States and its role in underwriting and shaping the global balance of power, or gearing up for deeper support of Russia’s military goals, China’s aims are likely more restrained and realistic. China is not likely to offer military support to Russia, both because of the diplomatic costs and because Chinese officials view the war as more of a liability than an opportunity and fear it spiraling out of control. Yu Jie, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, pointed out that China did not include any senior military officials in Xi’s delegation, signaling that peace talks and economic cooperation are the main items on the agenda.
It seems more likely that China is attempting to play a stabilizing role and ensure that Russia does not lose decisively. Beijing’s vision for a multipolar world is dependent on Russia acting as an effective counterbalance to the United States. It does not so much support the war as it does oppose allowing Russia to be destroyed economically and politically.
One day after Xi shook hands with Putin, Japan announced that Kishida, fresh off a visit to India, had boarded a train headed for Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Kishida has a history of offering support to the Ukrainian cause. Just last month, Kishida announced a $5.5 billion financial aid package for Ukraine and committed to hosting an online summit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and several other sympathetic national leaders. An invitation to visit was extended to Kishida by the Ukrainian government back in January, although the timing of his trip was a surprise
According to a statement from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kishida will “directly convey our solidarity and unwavering support for Ukraine” and “resolutely reject Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,” making a stark contrast with Beijing’s more neutral stance.
Japan is no doubt eager to take advantage of this opportunity of perfect timing to draw a stark contrast between Chinese and Japanese diplomacy and insert itself into the story of Asia’s increasing role in international diplomacy.
Although Japanese officials cautiously welcomed the peace announcement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Tokyo is unlikely to be very pleased that China was in the driver’s seat. Japan has its own history of positive diplomatic and economic engagement with Iran, and recently concluded a major investment deal with Saudi Arabia. More broadly, Japan has been showing a greater degree of interest in the Middle East in recent years, especially as its dependence on Middle Eastern oil climbs to record highs. While there is no indication that Japan was looking to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran itself, it has attempted to mediate in Iran-U.S. relations in the past, and China’s success in the region is likely to have it sharing the feelings of the U.S. foreign policy establishment that they have been left on the sidelines.
Obstacles to Asia-driven Diplomacy
While the spectacle of dueling diplomatic missions may create the impression of a high degree of influence, there are many obstacles to the success of Chinese and Japanese diplomatic efforts. Previous efforts to mediate in the major diplomatic issues of the Middle East by both Japan and China have either failed or been dead on arrival, and there is no guarantee that the Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement will be successfully implemented.
Japanese diplomacy is also still clearly fundamentally driven by relations with the United States and the ongoing security and diplomatic partnership with West, even as Japan diversifies and expands relations with other regional allies. It is also possible to see the timing of Japan’s visit as part of the China-U.S. rivalry; while it is more than just that, it aligns clearly with U.S. objectives and desire to counter Chinese foreign policy moves.
The United States, a key player in the conflict and necessary part of any peace agreement, rejects China mediation as “not rational” and considers any negotiation at this time to be a Russian stalling tactic designed to consolidate territorial gains.
While Japan and China are clearly more than happy to take advantage of diplomatic opportunities as they arise, the impetus and implementation of these offenses remains in the hands of regional actors. This can be seen in both the Iran-Saudi agreement and Japan’s visit to Ukraine, which both originated at the request of regional governments.
While Zelenskyy professes to be open to China’s plan, he has also been adamant that there will be no compromise with Russia on Ukrainian territorial boundaries, a necessary prerequisite for the Chinese roadmap. He has also agreed to hosting Japan at a time that undermines China, suggesting he is not interested in Beijing’s brand of mediation.
China’s eventual outreach to Zelenskyy may ultimately be more focused on the final item of the Chinese proposal, which emphasizes support for reconstruction after the war, no doubt something that both Zelenskyy and Xi believe China will play an essential role in.