China, Japan and the Ukraine war

While Xi Jinping was being received with great pomp and ceremony in Moscow last week, Fumio Kishida was 500 miles away in Kyiv.

The fact that the president of China and the prime minister of Japan paid simultaneous and competing visits to the capitals of Russia and Ukraine underlines the global significance of the Ukraine war. Japan and China are fierce rivals in east Asia. Both countries understand that their struggle will be profoundly affected by the outcome of the conflict in Europe.

This shadow boxing between China and Japan over Ukraine is part of a broader trend. Strategic rivalries in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions are increasingly overlapping with each other. What is emerging is something that looks more and more like a single geopolitical struggle.

Xi’s visit to Moscow has confirmed what the Harvard professor Graham Allison calls the “most consequential undeclared alliance in the world” — a Russia-China axis that stretches across the Eurasian landmass. Moscow and Beijing are drawing closer to Iran and also backed the “legitimate and reasonable concerns” of North Korea in the joint statement they issued last week.

Ranged against the Russia-China alliance is a group of democracies closely allied to the US. This is anchored by Nato in the Euro-Atlantic area and by America’s treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific, with Japan foremost among them.

The Biden administration is encouraging a tightening of links between America’s Asian and European allies. Last year, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand attended a Nato summit for the first time. At that meeting, Nato broke new ground by explicitly identifying China as a threat to the alliance’s “interests, security and values”. The same four Indo-Pacific countries will attend a Nato summit in Lithuania in July.

All this has been noticed with displeasure in Moscow and Beijing. Last week’s Russian-Chinese statement expressed “serious concern over Nato’s continuing strengthening of military security ties with Asia-Pacific countries”. It also explicitly condemned Aukus, the new security pact between Australia, the UK and the US.

The statement blamed all these moves on America’s “cold war mentality”. But Xi and Putin’s tendency to see the US as the puppet master behind everything may be blinding them to the way in which their actions have alarmed the democracies of Europe and Asia.

There will soon be a flurry of visits by European leaders to Beijing to test where China really stands on Ukraine. But Xi is unlikely to give the presidents of France and the European Commission anything more than warm words.

The Japanese government sees Putin’s assault on Ukraine as proof that authoritarian powers are on the march. They fear that a Russian victory in Ukraine could embolden China in their region. As Kishida put it on a trip to Britain last May: “Ukraine might be east Asia tomorrow.”

Earlier this year, Japan announced a 26.3 per cent increase in defence spending. Kishida’s visit to Ukraine was a dramatic step for Tokyo: the first time since 1945, a Japanese prime minister has visited a war zone.

The emergence of two rival global blocs has sparked inevitable talk of a new cold war. There are clear echoes of that conflict with a Russia-China alliance once again squaring off against a US-led coalition of democracies — while a large group of non-aligned nations, now labelled the “global south”, hovers on the sidelines.

However, there is an even gloomier historical parallel, which I find more compelling — and that is with the rise in international tensions in the 1930s and 1940s.

Then, as now, two authoritarian powers — one in Europe and one in Asia — were deeply unsatisfied with a world order they regarded as unfairly dominated by the Anglo-American powers. In the 1930s, the dissatisfied nations were Germany and Japan. The Asahi newspaper summarised the official view in Tokyo when it complained, in 1941, that the US and the UK were imposing a “system of world domination on the basis of Anglo-American world views”. Contemporary versions of that complaint are now made regularly on Russian state television or in China’s Global Times.

In his book, Fateful Choices, the historian Ian Kershaw records how Imperial Japan reacted to the outbreak of war in Europe: “It was in the wake of Hitler’s astonishing military triumphs in western Europe that Japan, seeking to exploit the weakness of these countries, took the fateful decisions to expand into south-eastern Asia.” That choice rapidly led Japan into a war — not just with Britain, France and the Netherlands — but also with the US.

Had Putin’s Russia also scored an “astonishing military triumph” and taken Kyiv in three days, Xi might have drawn similar conclusions about the weakness of western power in Asia and decided that the time was ripe for radical change.

But the danger of a slide into global conflict is far from over. The outbreak of war in Europe, combined with the rise in tensions in east Asia — and the growing connections between these two theatres — still has distinct echoes of the 1930s. All sides have a responsibility to make sure that, this time, linked rivalries in Europe and Asia do not culminate in a global tragedy.

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