Kishida and nuclear disarmament / Japan PM Kishida’s 8-year-long appeal for nuclear transparency

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida leaves for New York to attend the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Sunday evening.

As the world faces a growing nuclear threat exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, among other factors, this series explores the strategy and prospects of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s nuclear disarmament-related diplomacy. This is the first installment in a three-part series.

“The hurdles to reaching an agreement are getting higher, but the importance of reaching an agreement is rising, too,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said recently.

These words reflect Kishida’s commitment to achieving results as he prepares to attend the Aug. 1-26 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in New York.

Kishida, whose home turf is Hiroshima, has lauded the ideal of a “world without nuclear weapons” posited by then U.S. President Barack Obama during a speech in Prague in April 2009. But the prime minister has distanced himself from the Nuclear Weapons Convention, which bans outright the possession of nuclear weapons, instead placing priority on strengthening the NPT regime.

The nuclear powers of the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia have not joined the Nuclear Weapons Convention, neither have U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea.

Many of the countries that have ratified the convention are not directly exposed to the threat of nuclear weapons, such as nations in Latin America and Africa.

But given that the five nuclear powers listed above are signatories to the NPT, it is possible to encourage them to reduce their nuclear arsenals within the NPT framework.

There have been concerns about the hollowing out of the NPT for some time now: India, Pakistan and Israel, which possess nuclear weapons, have not signed up to the NPT, while North Korea declared its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003 and stepped up its nuclear development.

The United States and Russia are vying to improve the performance of their nuclear weapons, and China has been increasing its nuclear capability.

Kishida, 65, was the first Japanese foreign minister in 10 years to deliver a speech at an NPT meeting, when it was last held in 2015. In his speech, and with China in mind, he called for “transparency of nuclear forces.”

With the support of Japan and other countries, the conference’s draft final document included a requirement that the number and types of nuclear warheads, among other items, be regularly reported “without prejudice to national security.” However, conflict among the participating countries presented a major obstacle to realizing this objective.

The adoption of the document was ultimately shelved after the United States, Britain and other countries opposed a call for an early denuclearization meeting from Egypt and other nations, who had Israel in mind.

The quinquennial review conference is finally taking place after repeatedly being postponed due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Kishida reportedly was deeply concerned that the NPT could lose credibility if the talks were to break down again.

In his speech, Kishida was expected to call for the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and the start of negotiations — under Japan’s leadership — for the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for weapons as part of a plan to promote transparency in nuclear forces under the NPT regime.

In December, Kishida appointed 64-year-old Minoru Terada — a second-generation atomic bomb survivor whose constituency also is in Hiroshima — as the first assistant to the prime minister in charge of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation issues. Kishida instructed Terada to lay the groundwork for his plans among the countries concerned.

Yet Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons after invading Ukraine, creating a tense international backdrop for the NPT’s proceedings.

It is not easy for participating countries to reach a consensus, and thus some Japanese government figures are cautious about Kishida attending the conference. “It’s strange that the prime minister could be the one to bear the brunt of criticism at a meeting that should normally be handled by foreign minister-level staff,” a government source close to the prime minister said.

Kishida has personally expressed a strong desire to attend the conference, saying, “It’s going to be difficult, and that’s precisely why I should attend.”

Japan is the only country ever to suffer a wartime nuclear attack. Though the country is protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, it still faces the threat of a nuclear attack by China, Russia and North Korea.

It is crucial for Kishida to move the NPT forward while ensuring Japan’s nuclear deterrent is maintained so it will never again be subjected to a nuclear attack.

Kishida’s diplomatic skills will be severely tested at the Group of Seven summit meeting to be held in Hiroshima next May.

“The issue of nuclear disarmament is the first item on the Kishida Cabinet’s agenda,” the former vice foreign minister said. “Even under pessimistic circumstances, there’s no choice but to take up the challenge.”

According to an estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, there were 12,705 nuclear warheads in the world as of January of this year. Although this number has decreased from a Cold War peak of about 70,000, it is expected to increase over the next 10 years. An ownership breakdown of nuclear warheads includes Russia with 5,977, the United States with 5,428, China with 350 and North Korea with 20.

The Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, a framework for nonnuclear weapon states initiated by Japan, requires all states to report regularly on the number and type of nuclear warheads they possess and any reduction in their nuclear arsenal. Of the five nuclear powers, only China has failed to disclose how many nuclear warheads it holds.