Japan’s G7 Moment
from Asia Program

Japan’s G7 Moment

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tokyo, April 2023.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tokyo, April 2023. Andrew Harnik/Reuters

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio hosts the G7 summit as an outspoken champion of the rules-based international order. Japan hopes to galvanize support and recognition of its own security concerns in the Indo-Pacific as well.

May 12, 2023 3:28 pm (EST)

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tokyo, April 2023.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tokyo, April 2023. Andrew Harnik/Reuters
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio will host Group of Seven (G7) leaders in Hiroshima on May 19–21, and he is poised to rally the world’s leading democratic economies around maintaining support for Ukraine. Under Kishida’s leadership, Japan has strongly condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and marshaled significant resources for Kyiv, providing humanitarian and material aid to Ukrainians affected by the war. Kishida has also stressed how important this moment is for the global order and alerted his European counterparts that what is happening in Europe could just as easily happen in the Indo-Pacific.

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His actions go well beyond Japan’s 2014 response to Russia’s territorial ambitions in Ukraine. When Russia illegally annexed Crimea, Japan joined other governments in reconsidering Russia’s membership in the G7 and boycotted Putin’s G8 summit in Sochi. But the sanctions Japan imposed then were far less severe than their European counterparts, because former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo wanted to negotiate a peace treaty with Putin.

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Kishida, in contrast, has been an outspoken advocate for the international condemnation of Russia. He has worked closely with European nations to coordinate policy responses, including joining North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) discussions of how to manage security aid to Ukraine. He has taken several trips abroad to hammer out specific steps for enhanced diplomatic and security cooperation, beginning in January by touring G7 countries in Europe and North America. In recent weeks, he traveled to Africa to discuss how Japan and other countries can help mitigate the rise in food prices caused by the war.

An Outspoken Japan

Several factors account for this diplomatic vigor. First, Japan faces a far different security environment today than a decade ago. North Korea’s accumulation of ballistic missiles, capable of delivering nuclear weapons, has increasingly put Japan at risk. More striking, Beijing’s accelerated military buildup has also raised serious concerns in Tokyo. China’s behavior threatens the maritime status quo across the Indo-Pacific and challenges the extended deterrence proffered by Washington to its Asian allies. Japan’s waters and airspace are routinely challenged by Chinese forces, putting the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) on 24/7 alert. Decision-makers in Tokyo will now have to watch the China-Russia axis to discern what implications it will have for Japan’s security.

Second, in statecraft, learning matters. Kishida, who served as Abe’s foreign minister for five years, understands the demands—and the benefits—of multilateral coalition-building. Patient bilateralism did not pay off with Putin’s Russia; Abe once thought he would be able to solve the long-standing territorial dispute that has prevented Tokyo from signing a post-World War II peace treaty with Moscow. But Kishida has drawn a line at blatant aggression.

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Third, popular support for Kishida’s strategy has remained high. Russia’s contempt for the global rules-based order has not only spurred Japanese government action, but also strong sympathy for Ukraine among the Japanese people. Russian aggression has also increased Japanese awareness that diplomacy alone could be insufficient to address the world’s rising tensions. The United States and Japan will need to act in concert with democracies around the globe to develop the military capability to enhance their defenses.

Weighty Agenda at Hiroshima

So, what should the world expect from the G7 meeting in Hiroshima? Three focal points are likely:

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Support for Ukraine. The first, and most obvious, will be a reassertion of shared interest in supporting Ukraine and bringing peace to Europe. In his G7 tour earlier this year, Kishida made clear that the next steps should continue to emphasize the liberal democratic values that merged G7 coordination at the war’s beginning. Tokyo would also like to ensure that governments around the globe—particularly in lower-income countries, also known as the Global South—understand the monumental stakes of the war.

Existential threats. Second, the G7 will consider its broader agenda. Expect climate change to be an area of concern, but also expect Japan to remind the world of the need to confront its worst fear: the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Here again, the Ukraine conflict will inform the conversation. No one has missed Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons should the conflict in Ukraine not go Russia’s way. While it may seem passé to call for a world without nuclear weapons, there is fresh impetus for a renewed international effort to mitigate the possibility of nuclear weapons use. As the only country to suffer a nuclear attack, Japan is unique in understanding the horrific consequences.

Dealing with China. Finally, this G7 will be held in the Indo-Pacific, the region primed for great-power rivalry in the years ahead. The messaging from Hiroshima can be expected to include the realpolitik of how the G7 aims to cope with China’s territorial ambitions. Japan, of course, has the highest stake among the G7 in shared message about keeping the peace across the Taiwan Strait. As Japan is only a few hundreds of kilometers from Taiwan, a conflict there would have immediate consequences for Japanese security.

Some G7 members far from China’s shores may not have a sense of imminent danger, but Japan will encourage them to understand that the use of force by China against Taiwan would threaten peace not only in the Indo-Pacific, but across the globe. Expect mentions of China to be diplomatically discreet, however, given the economic interests of certain G7 members, especially France and Germany. U.S. allies in Asia joined the NATO leaders’ summit last summer in Madrid, Spain, where Kishida noted that Russia’s use of military force to change the European status quo could just as easily be imagined in the Indo-Pacific where Chinese military forces seem increasingly threatening to its neighbors. Moreover, several of Japan’s regional partners have been invited to Hiroshima to join the G7 leaders, including leaders from the Quad (Prime Ministers Anthony Albanese and Narendra Modi, from Australia and India, respectively,) as well as Presidents Yoon Suk-yeol from South Korea and Phạm Minh Chính from Vietnam. Leaders belonging to multilateral organizations from around the globe are also on the guest list, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will attend virtually. The Hiroshima G7 summit, should all attend, will look remarkably global in scope.

Kishida’s Message of Peace

Within Japan, this summit will also be an important test of Tokyo’s global influence. In 2022, Kishida led the most significant strategic review [PDF] Japan has undertaken in half a century, earning himself significant praise internationally. Now, he needs to demonstrate that he, like Abe before him, can amplify Japan’s voice and marshal support for its security at a precarious moment in world affairs. Kishida has to realize the long-standing Japanese desire to demonstrate the power of diplomacy in ensuring peace. As a native of Hiroshima, Kishida will also speak for the world’s only victims of nuclear bombing. As painful as it will be, he needs to tell Japan’s story of incomparable loss so that others across the globe will never have to.

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