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Japan at the Summit: From Schloß Elmau to Hiroshima

Hugo Dobson, University of Sheffield
June 27, 2022

All eyes will naturally and rightly be placed on German chancellor Olaf Scholz as host of the 48th summit of the Group of 7, taking place in Schloß Elmau from 26 to 28 June 2022. At the same time, an equal amount of attention will also be paid to US president Joe Biden, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and French president Emmanuel Macron but possibly over issues more domestic than global in nature. However, it is worth paying attention to one of the often-overlooked participants in the G7 summit process: Japan, represented at this summit by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. There are two main reasons why this is the case. First, Kishida is experiencing a full face-to-face G-summit at the leaders' level directly for the first time. Having assumed office in October 2021, he only attended the Rome G20 summit virtually, and having served as foreign minister under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, his experience of G7 meetings is limited to the ministerial level. Second, Japan will be hosting the G7 summit next year in Hiroshima. This is significant because the G7 is an iterative, informal forum of global governance. So, individuals matter and much of what is discussed here in Germany will be revisited and possibly delivered under Japan's G7 presidency. Kishida's performance in Schloß Elmau may provide us with clues as to his performance in Hiroshima.

In this spirit, rewinding seven years to the last time the G7 met in Schloß Elmau in 2015, when Japan was represented by Abe, is useful in gauging what we can expect of Kishida at this year's summit and next year's. Abe tended to use G7 summitry to highlight and pursue key elements of an eponymous foreign policy "doctrine" that advocated: 1) securing Japan's great power status by building an economically strong Japan; 2) promoting a more proactive and robust Japanese security role; and 3) engaging in historical revisionism to challenge post-war taboos and constraints. Kishida is widely regarded as providing continuity in Japanese leadership and served as foreign minister under Abe at this time, so it is likely that he will pursue similar goals.

When the G7 was last held in Schloß Elmau in 2015, Abe came to Germany with several related objectives. As regards managing the rise of China, on the one hand Abe was keen to have a statement included in the summit declaration related to maritime security and, although not a claimant in the dispute, ideally condemning China's land reclamation and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea as well as highlighting the implications for territorial disputes in the East China Sea (to which Japan is a claimant). On the other hand, Abe was faced with possible divisions on the issue of China's proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany already committed to joining the initiative while Japan had stalled on its decision due to concerns surrounding transparency, standards and quality in the AIIB's governance and lending practices. The 2015 Elmau Summit provided an opportunity for Abe to communicate these concerns to fellow summiteers. The outcome of the summit was largely positive. As regards the issue of maritime security and the South and East China Seas, Abe employed the strategy of likening China's grab for territory in this region to Russia's in Ukraine in order to elicit the support of his fellow G7 leaders. He repeatedly stressed the importance of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and condemned the unilateral use of force by the strong against the weak. The final declaration reflected these concerns (without explicitly mentioning China) over "tensions in the East and South China Seas … [and strongly opposed] the use of intimidation, coercion or force, as well as any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo, such as large-scale land reclamation." At the same time, in his post-summit press conference, Abe echoed the leaders' declaration and stressed numerous times how it was the shared values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights and the rule of law that bind the G7 leaders together and give it its defining character as forum. This all chimed with the "values-oriented diplomacy" targeted at isolating China that was the signature foreign policy initiative of Abe's first, short-lived administration. In 2015, it allowed him to reinforce the comparison between Russia and China and bring the world's attention to the South China Sea. Abe also took the opportunity afforded by his post-summit press conference to emphasize that the controversial legislation his administration had introduced to enable Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defence was in line with accepted interpretations of the Japanese constitution, despite opposition within Japan. The inclusion of a statement of G7 condemnation not only over North Korea's nuclear and missile program, but also the abduction issue, was a given especially considering Abe's personal interest in the issue and participation in the first high-level Japan–North Korea summit in 2002, as well as the regular inclusion of similar statements in G7 and G8 documents since 2003.

At this year's Elmau Summit, history is likely to repeat itself in several ways. As regards managing China, Kishida supported the G7's relaunch of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment announced at last year's Cornwall Summit, emphasising quality and transparency and thereby standing as a rival to Chinese-led infrastructure initiatives. He will probably be pushing at an open door as regards including a condemnation of North Korea's recent missile launches in summit statements. Kishida is also likely to stress, as Abe did at every opportunity, the values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights and the rule of law as the defining and unifying principles of G7 members, as well as the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and a condemnation of the unilateral use of force within the context of the conflict in Ukraine. Kishida supported a strong and united G7 statement that condemned Russia and pledged support for Ukraine. This support can be see partly as an insurance policy with one eye on possible regional conflicts closer to home, as exemplified earlier this month at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore when Kishida announced that "Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow."

Thus, a strong emphasis on security issues is likely to run through his participation in this year's summit and hosting of next year's. Kishida has already established a reputation as a reformer seeking to expand Japan's military role both regionally and globally. After the G7 Summit, he will travel to Madrid and make history by becoming the first Japanese prime minister to attend a NATO Summit. Japan's relationship with NATO has steadily evolved over time from a partner with shared values so that by 2013 they were able to issue their first joint political declaration. Abe visited the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels the following year, declaring Japan and NATO to be "natural partners" and agreeing to closer cooperation across a range of activities. Kishida's participation in the Madrid Summit is part of this incremental trajectory in relations with NATO.

At the same time, the Japanese government and its people have long stressed a comprehensive approach to security and claim the concept of human security as part of its intellectual contribution to the global community. In this light, Kishida will back G7 commitments around food insecurity and the creation of a Global Alliance for Food Security.

As regards next year's summit, Kishida has selected the city of Hiroshima as host. He is a long-serving representative of one of the Hiroshima parliamentary districts in the House of Representatives and although Japanese politics certainly has a long tradition of pork-barrel politics, this does not fully explain the reasons behind this decision. Rather, it has been reported that Kishida's motivation in selecting Hiroshima over Fukuoka as the venue for next year's G7 summit is that this sends out a strong message in response to fears that Russia may use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. At a joint press conference with Joe Biden during the latter's visit to Japan in May 2022, Kishida announced that "as the prime minister of the only nation that was a victim of atomic bombing, there is no better place to demonstrate our commitment to peace than Hiroshima. We would like to confirm our unity in defending peace, the international order and our common values."

Kishida's position is not wholly secure. His cabinet's approval ratings dipped below 50 per cent the week before the summit and now almost match his disapproval ratings. He also faces a tricky Upper House election in July that Japanese voters might use to voice their discontent over the rising cost of living. So, a few banana skins lie ahead. However, crystal ball gazers can easily be forgiven for predicting that Kishida will still be in power at next year's G7 summit and will continue to embed a strong emphasis on security issues, widely defined, in global summitry.

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