Is there a path to Kishida’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons?

The Yomiuri Shimbun
At a press conference following the closing of the 2022 G7 summit in Germany, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announces that Japan will host the next G7 summit in Hiroshima on May 19-21, 2023.

On Aug. 1, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will become the first Japanese prime minister to address the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in New York. It is rare for national leaders to take part in NPT review conferences, which are usually held every five years, and Kishida’s participation will highlight his enthusiastic commitment to nuclear issues. Kishida also will host the G7 summit when it is held in Hiroshima on May 19-21 next year. Both events will be stages on which we will be able to see whether there is a way forward for Kishida’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Addressing the NPT conference will give Kishida a concrete starting point as prime minister to continue his lifework on nuclear disarmament and abolition. In his speech, Kishida will emphasize his determination to serve as a bridge between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states and will call for cooperation in achieving a “world without nuclear weapons.”

Kishida attended the previous NPT review conference, held in New York in 2015, as foreign minister. Despite Japan’s best efforts, the conference concluded without the signing of an outcome document. Kishida has said that failing to reach an agreement on the document was unfortunate and that he believes showing forward movement at an NPT review conference would have been an important step toward nuclear disarmament and abolition.

Kishida was elected to the House of Representatives from a constituency in Hiroshima. The city is known for being struck by an American atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, the first time such a weapon was ever used in war. With Hiroshima as his home electoral ground, Kishida is well-known for his progressive vision on nuclear issues, a view not shared by many of his fellow conservatives in the Liberal Democratic Party.

To achieve nuclear disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons, Kishida intends to take realistic measures. For instance, he is cautious about Japan’s becoming an observer to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons due to the nuclear powers’ abstention from participating in that treaty. For Kishida, it is critical to maintain a healthy relationship with the United States, Japan’s only formal ally and the provider of the nuclear umbrella on which Japan depends for its security. Kishida once told an aide that even with the nuclear issue in mind, Japan’s relationship with the U.S. remains paramount.

Kishida demonstrated his realistic approach to this issue during his meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Tokyo on May 23. The two released the Japan-U.S. Joint Leaders’ Statement in which both leaders reaffirmed their intent to work together toward a world without nuclear weapons. The statement also specified that the president reiterated the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan backed by the full range of American capabilities, including its nuclear arsenal. One notable highlight from the statement is the section on China, in which the two leaders requested that China contribute to arrangements that reduce nuclear risks, increase transparency, and advance nuclear disarmament. Kishida prioritized the inclusion of China’s nuclear issues in the statement. A senior official told me after Kishida and Biden met that the prime minister succeeded in striking a balance on the nuclear issues. Kishida also received Biden’s approval on hosting next year’s G7 Summit in Hiroshima. The prime minister aimed to ensure that all G7 members, including the nuclear powers of the United States, Britain and France, agree on the decision to host the summit in Hiroshima.

Kishida continued to call for China’s nuclear disarmament in his keynote address at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue on June 10. At the event, the prime minister told the audience that Japan will support the dialogue on nuclear disarmament and arms control between the United States and China, alongside other concerned countries.

At the final meeting of the G7 Summit in Elmau, Germany, on June 28, the prime minister spoke as next year’s chairman, recognizing that “the world is facing the unprecedented crisis of the invasion of Ukraine and the increased risk of the use of weapons of mass destruction.” He then said regarding the upcoming Hiroshima summit: “I would like to show the G7’s intention to categorically reject armed aggression, threats from nuclear weapons, and attempts to overthrow the international order.”

The prime minister feels that “there is no better place to show a commitment to peace than Hiroshima.” He hopes to increase the momentum for nuclear disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons by inviting the G7 leaders, including the nuclear-armed United States, Britain and France, to visit Hiroshima, a city that serves as a reminder of the tragic reality of the atomic bombings.

As Kishida said, the path to a world without nuclear weapons has become even more challenging, and the situation surrounding nuclear arsenals is growing severe. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who invaded Ukraine, has mentioned the possibility of using nuclear weapons, and North Korea continues its nuclear and missile development. China, meanwhile, has been opaquely increasing its nuclear forces. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports that the number of nuclear weapons in the world will likely increase in the next decade, indicating that the period of the post-Cold War nuclear drawdown is ending.

Considering the harsh security environment, Kishida will continue to promote his ideals while also continuing to increase the credibility of the U.S. “extended deterrence” that protects Japan with military power, including the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This raises the question; how can we gain the understanding of nuclear-weapon states and show the path to nuclear disarmament and abolition while still ensuring the deterrence of the Japan-U.S. alliance?

In a speech at Nagasaki University in 2014, Kishida introduced “three reductions” as possible steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. The first is a reduction of the number of nuclear weapons, the second is a reduction of the role of the weapons, and the third is a reduction of the motivation to own these weapons. By embracing these reductions, the G7 leaders would take an important step toward nuclear disarmament.

In May 2016, then Foreign Minister Kishida welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama to Hiroshima. Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, called for their abolition at Hiroshima. However, the world has learned how hard it is to achieve such a goal. Next year, Kishida will have a chance to attract the attention of the world as the host of the G7 Hiroshima Summit. There the prime minister’s diplomatic skills will be put to the test as he strives to make the world a safer place.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Michitaka Kaiya

Kaiya is a staff writer in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.