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At G7, Japan quietly strengthens alliances

William Yang in Hiroshima
May 20, 2023

Amid rising security risks in the Indo-Pacific region, Japan is diplomatically cultivating allies near and far during the G7 presidency.

U.S. President Joe Biden, Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi hold a Quad meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit, at the Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima, Japan, May 20, 2023.
US President Joe Biden, Japanese PM Fumio Kishida, Australian PM Anthony Albanese and Indian PM Narendra Modi held a quad meeting at the sidelines of the G7 summitImage: Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

As leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrial countries meet in Japan, the host nation is using the three-day summit to highlight pressing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region while asserting itself as a key player on the international stage.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is "leveraging" Japan's G7 presidency to draw the world's attention to the challenging security situation in the region, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.

Security issues in the Indo-Pacific region include China's ongoing efforts to expand and modernize its nuclear forces and technologies, its potential invasion of Taiwan and North Korea's continuation of its military nuclear weapons program.

G7 leaders summit kicks off in Hiroshima

Three countries in Japan's vicinity, North Korea, China and Russia, possess nuclear weapons capabilities. As such, holding the G7 summit in Hiroshima, one of two Japanese cities devastated by atomic bombs dropped by the United States in the last days of World War II, has an enormous symbolism.

Prior to the start of the summit, Kishida said he believes the first step toward any nuclear disarmament effort is to provide "a first-hand experience of the consequences of the atomic bombing and to firmly convey the reality."

Promoting nuclear disarmament, which may include getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program, is a '"personal mission for Kishida," said Japan expert Kingston, "and it's a distant goal."

Beyond the Indo-Pacific

In his attempt to achieve that goal, Kishida has expanded Japan's diplomatic efforts beyond its traditional allies in the Indo-Pacific. The prime minister was quick to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year and impose sanctions on Russian entities while offering aid and military assistance worth millions of dollars. In March, he made an unannounced visit to Kyiv.

According to Christopher B. Johnstone and Nicholas Szechenyi from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, Kishida's Ukraine visit wasn't just about symbolic support. It also showed "Japan's own determination to support Ukraine and oppose Russia's attempt to change the status quo by force — a universal principle that Tokyo sees as vital to uphold in the face of Chinese coercion in Asia," they wrote in an analysis.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also been invited to address the G7 summit in person on Sunday.

Zelenskyy in Japan for G7 summit: Richard Walker reports

Expanding traditional alliances

Kishida has also invited leaders from several Global South nations to attend the meeting as observers, including Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and Brazil.

Although it has become customary to invite leaders from non-G7 nations in recent years, Japan is making efficient use of the G7 to expand traditional alliances, says Japan security expert Robert Ward, amid growing concern about the potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Japan needs "a network as densely as it can be and in as many areas related to security as it can be," said Ward, Japan chair and senior fellow with the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, "because Japan's needs go beyond the traditional US-Japan security relationship."

G7 leaders offer silent prayers in front of the centotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima City on May 19, 2023.
G7 leaders offered silent prayers in front of the centotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima CityImage: Naoki Maeda/Yomiuri Shimbun/AP/picture alliance

To further strengthen Japan's security cooperation with key regional allies, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese are also present in Hiroshima. 

Japan's diplomatic efforts in Europe and closer to home are paying off, said Eleanor Hughes, a non-resident fellow at the Chicago-based think tank EconVue.

She points to Japan signing of a landmark agreement with the United Kingdom on the eve of the summit. A UK government press release hailed "Japan's pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific and their centrality to the UK's security and prosperity."

Other signs of Japan's diplomatic success, according to Hughes, include a reciprocal access agreement with Australia, its advancement of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (commonly known as the Quad) between India,  Australia, Japan and the United States and increasing engagement with African countries and the Global South.

New defense posture

Japan's efforts to present itself as a major player in international politics are coupled with the dramatic transformation of its defense posture. Last December, Japan announced the plan to double its defense budget and acquire counterstrike capabilities. 

Additionally, Kishida has also strengthened bilateral exchanges with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. During a meeting between Japanese and Filipino Foreign Ministers in Tokyo on May 16, both countries agree to deepen security cooperation, citing China's growing maritime assertiveness as a mutual concern. 

*Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attends a Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment event during the G7 summit, at the Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima, Japan, May 20, 2023.
PM Fumio Kishida is "leveraging" Japan's G7 presidency to draw the world's attention to the challenging security situation in the regionImage: Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

Despite major changes to its security posture in recent months, the Japanese public seems somewhat ambivalent to the government's new direction.

According to a recent poll from the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, 80% of Japanese respondents express concern about the likelihood that Japan would be dragged into the potential military conflict across the Taiwan Strait

Kishida is "constrained by the deep pacifism among the Japanese people," said Kingston from TUJ. "It's a difficult situation."

This means Kishida needs to balance Japan's emboldened foreign policy ambitions with his people's reservations.

International relations expert Kyoko Hatakeyama is among those analysts who think Japan can still maximize its diplomatic influence during the year of its G7 presidency.

"If the G7 summit is successful, it will boost Japan's diplomatic status," said Hatakeyama, a professor at the University of Niigata Prefecture in Japan. "And if Japan takes a more active role in maintaining regional order, the Indo-Pacific region can also benefit from these efforts."

Edited by: K. Hairsine