By Trevor Hunnicutt
HIROSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) – The United States and other rich democracies on Sunday will bring to a close a Group of Seven gathering that has focused on undermining Russia and managing China with a show of force behind Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Zelenskiy will receive a hero’s welcome during the closing day of the G7 summit hosted in Hiroshima, Japan, where leaders debated how to respond to a conflict that many expect only to escalate after nearly 15 months of fighting.
Western countries used the event to announce new sanctions against Moscow and vowed to pump even more weapons, military assistance and cash into the fight.
But they planned to aim the most rhetorical fire at China, Russia’s most powerful ally in Asia, implicitly warning Chinese President Xi Jinping that any efforts to bully them or change the status quo in self-ruled Taiwan or the disputed South China Sea would be met with the same resolve as Russia’s attempt to re-draw Ukraine’s borders.
“A growing China that plays by international rules would be of global interest,” the leaders said in a communique that included some of their toughest language ever as a group regarding Beijing.
On Sunday, Japan and South Korea, two of China’s wealthiest neighbours, will highlight their improved ties with a joint meeting.
Meanwhile, Zelenskiy will brief leaders on what Kyiv needs for a ramped-up spring offensive against Moscow that he has said will create the conditions for a resolution to the conflict.
On Saturday, Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed his Wagner fighters had completed the capture of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, but Kyiv rejected the claim and said fighting was continuing there. Bakhmut has been the focus of the longest and bloodiest battle of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday endorsed training Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets for the first time as leaders announced new sanctions on Russia.
Biden is planning to roll out a $375 million military aid package for Ukraine in Japan as well, according to a U.S. official. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the package will include artillery, ammunition and HIMARS rocket launchers.
But Zelenskiy has pushed the countries to go further on both economic and military measures.
“Important meetings with partners and friends of Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said on Twitter as he arrived in Hiroshima. “Security and enhanced cooperation for our victory. Peace will become closer today.”
Japan sought Zelenskiy’s attendance in person, and his circuitous, 9,000 km (5,600 mile) journey from Saudi Arabia on a French plane avoiding Russian airspace injected drama into a buttoned-up diplomatic meeting.
Wearing his customary olive green fatigues, Zelenskiy stepped out of a French government aircraft on Saturday afternoon and moved swiftly to a waiting car, footage from Japanese broadcasters showed.
Over a few short hours on Saturday, Zelenskiy had already gotten a warm welcome in meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, and Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak among others.
In Japan, the small European country’s fight against its much larger neighbour has taken on special significance for a country that feels threatened by China, Asia’s biggest country and Japan’s biggest trading partner.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida used the setting of the conference, the first city to be levelled by an atomic bomb, as a stark reminder of the horrors of war.
Zelenskiy is due to hold a session on Sunday with all of the G7 members – the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Canada – before a broader session with other invited countries.
“Global South” countries, including Brazil and India, were invited to help cultivate ties with countries that have tried to avoid taking risky stances in the conflict between larger powers, including the United States and China, or sought warm relations with Russia.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told Macron that he would speak with Zelenskiy while in Hiroshima, a French presidential source told reporters, amid speculation that Lula might skip such a meeting.
Zelenskiy came to the G7 straight from Saudi Arabia where he attended an Arab League meeting, another grouping that includes countries that have sought to carefully navigate great power conflict.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by John Irish in Hiroshima, Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by David Dolan and Hugh Lawson)