Japan Using ‘Diplomatic Power’ for Global Good

In the past year, we have witnessed a series of astonishing changes in the international situation. Those changes began with the global spread of the omicron variants of the novel coronavirus. Then, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shook the world. Inflation caused by surges in energy and food prices and labor shortages has been rattling the fundamentals of the global economy.

Facing one crisis after another, the Japanese government held a Cabinet meeting at the end of last year to adopt three new national security and defense documents, including the National Security Strategy. As I see it, the documents show that the government correctly understands the prevailing international situation and the strategies necessary to deal with it.

For Japan, 2023 will be a year of diplomacy. Holding the Group of Seven presidency for the year, Japan is scheduled to host the 2023 G7 summit in Hiroshima in May. The diplomatic abilities of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — who represents a Hiroshima Prefecture constituency in the Diet — will be put to the test as chairperson of the summit.

At the beginning of January, Japan began a two-year term as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council and assumed the council’s rotating presidency for the month. Japan thus has an opportunity to play a pivotal role in two important diplomatic theaters — the G7 summit and the U.N. Security Council.

The issue of bringing peace to Ukraine is high on the agenda at both forums. Kimihiro Ishikane, Japan’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview with NHK that what should be done now is to make preparations for peace that ought to be realized in the future.

Proactive creation of peace

Visiting Washington for a Japan-U.S. summit on Jan. 13, Kishida delivered an address on the same day at a U.S. graduate school, saying that “the international community is at a historic turning point” and “Japan is resolved to proactively create peace and prosperity and a free and open order worldwide.” These messages are extremely important to support the international order, which is wavering due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Despite Japan’s resolve, the problem is that neither Russia nor Ukraine is likely to agree to a ceasefire. Given the ongoing fierce battle between them, it is difficult to predict how soon peace will even become possible. Nonetheless, history provides past examples of Japan’s engagement in proactive international efforts to create international order.

One such example was the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which was signed approximately 100 years ago. The pact led the Ottoman Empire and the Allies to formally end the conflict they had been engaged in since World War I. Japan, as a great power and a member of the Allies, joined the United Kingdom, France and other countries in drafting the peace treaty.

Hitoshi Ashida, then a young Japanese diplomat who would go on to serve as prime minister in 1948, praised the Treaty of Lausanne for bringing major reforms to the “Near East.” He interpreted it as “what could be called a lawmaking treaty concluded between multiple countries that were pursuing a common goal,” according to Akira Yajima’s book “Ashida Hitoshi to Nippon Gaiko” (Hitoshi Ashida and Japanese diplomacy), published by Yoshikawa Kobunkan in 2019. As such, Japan was deeply involved in the post-World War I settlement process as a victorious country in the war.

Despite its contributions to peace-building efforts following the end of World War I, Japan soon became less relevant to endeavors to create international order. The country instead chose to challenge the then prevailing international order, eventually shattering it.

On Aug. 14, 2015, the day before Japan marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a statement that included the following passage: “With the Manchurian Incident [in 1931], followed by the withdrawal from the League of Nations [in 1933], Japan gradually transformed itself into a challenger to the new international order that the international community sought to establish after tremendous sacrifices. Japan took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.”

Defending international order

Japan is now taking a stand to defend the current international order, remembering and thinking over its history and taking lessons from it. Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year, Prime Minister Kishida denounced Russia at a press conference. At the time, he stated: “The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia is an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force. It is an act that undermines the very foundation of the international order. It constitutes a blatant violation of international law. As such, it is unacceptable, and I condemn it in the strongest terms. Now is the time for us to unite in taking resolute actions in order to defend the foundation of the international order fully.”

Kishida can be said to have been the first leader in the international community to define the Russian move as an act that undermines the very foundation of the international order.

As long as this unacceptable Russian action continues, Japan cannot be uninvolved even though it is far from the war zone. It is important indeed that the Japanese leader resolutely castigated Russia in the defense of the international order. Japan made the right decision in becoming the first country in Asia to impose sanctions against Russia.

In his Jan. 13 address at a U.S. graduate school, Kishida also said: “Our nation is the sole representative of Asia in the G7. Japan’s participation in the measures against Russia transformed the fight against Russia’s aggression against Ukraine from a Trans-Atlantic one to a global one.”

Looking back, Japan was also the sole Asian country to take part in the key talks for setting a new international order following World War I, such as the Paris Peace Conference, which set terms for postwar peace, and the Lausanne Peace Conference. After going through twists and turns over the following century, Japan now severely criticizes Russia for invading Ukraine and joins Western countries in introducing sanctions against Russia, making clear its stand of protecting the prevailing international order. Moreover, Japan is actively exploring a path toward peace within established international diplomatic frameworks, namely the U.N. Security Council and the G7.

Diplomacy 1st element of power

The new National Security Strategy, adopted by the Cabinet on Dec. 16 last year, cites diplomatic, defense, economic, technological and intelligence capabilities as five “main elements of comprehensive national power.” This shows that the government correctly understands what has to be prioritized for national security.

It is important to acknowledge that the document refers to “diplomatic capabilities” as the first main element of comprehensive national power. The National Security Strategy specifically says, “The basis of national security is to proactively create a peaceful, stable and highly predictable international environment based on the rule of law and to prevent the emergence of threats.” Using diplomatic capabilities to establish an international order based on the rule of law is precisely in line with the national interests of Japan.

However, media coverage of the National Security Strategy has centered almost exclusively on the new decision to acquire “counterstrike capabilities” and the government’s pledge to increase defense spending. The fact that almost no attention was paid to diplomatic capabilities as the first element of comprehensive national power disappoints me.

Will Japan be able to facilitate a transition from war to peace in Ukraine with its diplomatic capabilities? It will require following a difficult path. There is no magic in diplomatic endeavors; they cannot resolve every issue right away.

Yet, I believe it to be of great importance that Japan, which made history by challenging the prevailing international order in the past century, is now making active efforts to defend the international order and restore peace.

Yuichi Hosoya

Hosoya is a professor of international politics at Keio University and the author of numerous books on British, European and Japanese politics and foreign affairs, including “Security Politics in Japan: Legislation for a New Security Environment.”

The original article in Japanese appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun.