HIROYUKI AKIYAMA and ERIKA KOBAYASHI, Nikkei staff writers
TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is considering trips to Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations this month, Nikkei has learned, seeking to narrow a rift between the region and the U.S. and Europe on sanctions against Russia.
Asian nations have been reluctant to impose aggressive penalties on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine. Kishida hopes dialogue with leaders will help ease their security anxiety over breaking with Moscow and Beijing and pave the way for a more united response against the invasion.
Kishida will travel during Japan’s Golden Week holiday from late April through early May. Other stops under consideration include Thailand and Vietnam, as well as Europe if his schedule allows. This would be his first extended overseas trip since becoming prime minister in October, and could also help lay the groundwork for U.S. President Joe Biden’s first visit in office to Japan and other Asian nations.
Indonesia holds the presidency for the Group of 20 major economies this year. Some within the Group of Seven industrial nations have called for Russia’s expulsion from the larger framework.
But with several members of the group, including China, aligning with Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to be planning to attend the G-20 summit in November.
Kishida is expected to offer assistance to Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in coordinating with other G-20 members regarding Putin’s attendance. “We need to have a discussion with Indonesia, the G-20 president, and others in the bloc,” Kishida told reporters on Friday.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, hosted by Thailand this year, also includes the U.S., China and Russia. Japan plans to hold talks with member nations to help decide on the best format for its summit.
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have traditionally sought to strike a diplomatic balance between the U.S., China and Russia, concerned that the U.S. may not necessarily come to their aide should they face deeper tensions with Beijing or Moscow.
So far, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore are among a handful of Asian countries and regions that have joined sanctions against Russia. “You were the first in Asia to put real pressure on Russia to restore peace,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the Japanese parliament in a speech last month.
Most still conduct business as usual with Moscow. India, Laos and Vietnam abstained from the March vote at the U.N. General Assembly for a resolution criticizing the invasion of Ukraine.
Kishida hopes to parlay Japan’s position as the only Asian member of the G-7 to bridge the region’s rift with the West regarding the war in Ukraine. “Some Asian countries are unhappy with unilateral requests by the U.S. and Europe to join in on sanctions,” a Japanese government source said.
He plans to use the trip to discuss what specific economic and political concerns other Asian leaders have about taking a tougher stance on Russia, and could relay them to the U.S. and Europe. He will update Asian leaders on the developments in Ukraine and urge them to join the sanctions.
Japan last week announced plans to phase out Russian coal imports. It will need to deepen its cooperation with other producers like Indonesia to make up for the shortfall.
Greater involvement in Asia could lend Japan more weight in discussions with the U.S. and Europe. Kishida updated the G-7 on developments in India and Cambodia on March 24, just days after visiting those countries.