The G7 Summit: Japan’s Opportunity for Global Leadership


The Group of Seven foreign ministers’ meeting in Hiroshima this past April was a symbolic step toward nuclear disarmament and a milestone in Japanese diplomacy. But can the G7 leaders follow up on that performance with substantive agreements to shore up the global economy and protect the international order? Much will depend on Japan’s leadership, writes Hosoya Yuichi.

Even in diplomacy, a picture can be worth a thousand words. A recent example was the photo of Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Kishida Fumio and US Secretary of State John Kerry huddled together at the cenotaph in Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, where the Group of Seven foreign ministers gathered for a meeting on April 11 this year.

As early as April 2015, it was clear that ties between Japan and the United States were entering a new phase, as our governments signed the revised Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation and Prime Minister Abe Shinzō became the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of Congress. Another sign was Washington’s agreement to a proposal by Japan—scheduled to host and chair the 2016 G7 summit—to hold the April 2016 foreign ministers’ meeting in Hiroshima, Foreign Minister Kishida’s hometown. During the Hiroshima conference, Secretary of State Kerry was visibly moved by the A-bomb exhibits in the Peace Memorial Museum and spoke forcefully of the need to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons.

The April G7 foreign ministers’ meeting was a milestone in several respects, but its most obvious significance lay in the venue. With the nuclear-weapon states facing the non-nuclear states across a deep divide and insisting on the deterrent value of nuclear weapons, it was a great symbolic achievement to hold the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Hiroshima, where an atomic bomb wreaked death and destruction 71 years earlier.

In an interview in the Japanese journal Gaikō (Diplomacy), Foreign Minister Kishida summed up the situation as follows: “As the only country ever to sustain a nuclear attack, Japan bears a unique responsibility to work for a world free of nuclear weapons. At the same time, these past three years as foreign minister have made me acutely aware of the need for cooperation between the nuclear-weapon states and the non-nuclear states if we are to make any concrete progress toward nuclear disarmament” (Gaikō no. 35, 2016, pp. 12– 13).

Now in his fourth year as the nation’s top diplomat—appointed when Abe formed his second cabinet—Kishida has become a well-known figure in international circles. He speaks fluent English, having lived and attended school in New York City as a child. At the foreign ministers’ meeting, he would have been able to converse directly with Kerry, without the benefit of an interpreter, as the two strolled together on Kishida’s home turf.

Kishida is also the head of a major faction within the Liberal Democratic Party, and some in his faction have urged him to assert his own foreign-policy stance so as to heighten his appeal as a possible successor to Abe. Resisting such pressure, he has placed duty before politics and worked tirelessly to support and implement Abe’s foreign policy. In so doing, he has firmly secured the trust of the prime minister and his staff. He has earned high marks for his role in showcasing the renewed strength of Japan-US ties, and his flawless performance as chair of the successful G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Hiroshima undoubtedly enhanced his reputation further.

The G7 Is Back

At a press conference following the foreign ministers’ meeting, Kishida made a passionate case for the relevance of the G7 as an international framework. “The G7 nations share a belief in the universal values of democracy, the rule of law, free markets, territorial integrity, and basic human rights,” he said. “It is fair to say that the stability and prosperity of the international community heretofore are products of an international order built on these values. Today, however, the international order based on these universal values is facing a challenge from forces seeking to change the status quo through unilateral action.”

Kishida’s words highlight a serious problem facing the world today. Various forces are threatening the foundations of the international order. In the face of such uncertainty, international cooperation and coordination among the G7 nations, who share the core values of which Kishida speaks, are more important than ever before.

Many had questioned the G7’s raison d’être. What with the impact of the 2008 financial crisis and the rapid rise of emerging markets like China and India, the influence of the major industrial democracies appeared to be on the wane, and the emphasis seemed to be shifting to the G20 as a framework encompassing the world’s most dynamic economies. More recently, however, economic growth has slowed markedly in China and other emerging markets, while Russia’s conduct in the Ukraine has resulted in sanctions and fierce criticism from the West. In the context of these developments, the G20 has lost momentum as a potential framework for cooperation, and the G7 is looking more relevant all the time.

In his post-meeting statement, Kishida made the point that strong words and coordinated action by a group of nations sharing key values are essential if we are to maintain a stable international order. “I believe that the international order is approaching a key juncture based on our handling of the issues discussed over the past two days. My hope is that the Hiroshima foreign ministers’ meeting will provide a springboard for initiatives spearheaded by the G7 nations, which share universal values, to secure the peace and prosperity of the international community.”

Among the outcomes of the April G7 foreign ministers’ meeting were a Statement on Maritime Security, aimed at curbing Chinese expansion in the South China and East China seas, and a Statement on Disarmament and Nonproliferation, a necessary first step toward the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

On a more personal note, Hiroshima generated an intense emotional response from Secretary of State Kerry. He spoke of his visit to the Peace Memorial Museum, with its photos and artifacts documenting the bomb’s devastation, as a “gut-wrenching” experience and declared that “everyone should visit Hiroshima,” including the president of the United States.

Finding Common Ground with Germany

The focus now shifts to Ise-Shima, site of the May 26–27 G7 summit.

Japan finds itself in a unique position to exert real leadership at this year’s summit, not merely because it is hosting and chairing the conference but also because Prime Minister Abe will be under fewer constraints than most of the other G7 leaders. US President Barack Obama has only a few months left in office, and since this will be his last G7 summit, he is in no position to pledge US action or set the agenda. British Prime Minister David Cameron has his hands full at home amid the fallout from the Panama Papers and the need to persuade the nation to support continued membership in the European Union in advance of a June 23 referendum on the issue. In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015, France’s political agenda is dominated by anti-terrorism efforts and the influx of Syrian refugees. Italy and Canada both have young, newly elected leaders, whose diplomatic experience pales beside that of Abe, a veteran of four major-power summits.

Only German Chancellor Angela Merkel (with 10 summits under her belt) is as well positioned as Abe to assert leadership in this year’s G7 summit. Accordingly, the most important task for Abe in the run-up to the summit is that of ironing out differences with Merkel.

The world economy, after all, is expected to top the summit’s agenda. The key to a successful outcome in this area could hinge on Abe’s ability to persuade the fiscally conservative Merkel of the need to boost public spending to sustain global economic growth.

A G7 agreement could have a major influence on global economic trends. It could also have an impact on the timing of a consumption tax increase and the overall success of Abe’s domestic economic program. This makes it all the more critical for Japan to display strong leadership.

On April 25, with the summit just a month off, Prime Minister Abe called on Vice Foreign Minister Saiki Akitaka and Deputy Foreign Ministers Sugiyama Shinsuke and Nagamine Yasumasa to “make diligent preparations to ensure that Japan can exercise effective leadership” as he prepared to embark on a tour of Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, the four European G7 countries. While in Germany, Abe will do his best to convince Merkel of the need for a coordinated economic program including the kind of public spending that Japan has been advocating, and much will depend on his success.

A Legacy in the Making?

But there is another issue on which Germany’s understanding could prove critical: maritime security in East Asia. Japan and the United States both believe that the G7 needs to issue a strong, unified message at the coming summit for the purpose of restraining China’s military activity in the East China and South China seas. But in the European Union, a more optimistic view of China prevails regarding that country’s military role in East Asia, as well as its economic prospects.

The test facing the Abe cabinet goes far beyond the immediate challenge of chairing the G7 summit. The Japanese government is attempting to exert a new level of global leadership in two critical areas: economic policy predicated on public spending and maritime security policies for free, open, and safe navigation of the seas. Barring unforeseen developments, Abe is likely to remain in office for several years to come. Prime Ministers Nakasone Yasuhiro and Koizumi Jun’ichirō, who enjoyed relatively long tenures, were able to forge close and confiding relationships with the other G7 leaders as a result. If Abe can do likewise, he will be in a good position to set the diplomatic agenda and guide the debate going forward.

To be sure, it will be no easy task forging a consensus for concerted action in today’s troubled world, with isolationist sentiment on the rise. But it is all the more important in the face of rising threats to the international order. The G7 stands at a crossroads. The outcome of the May Ise-Shima summit could determine the direction of the world economy, the future of the international order, and the legacy of the Abe administration.

(Originally written in Japanese on April 27, 2016, and published on May 9, 2016. Banner photo: Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio and US Secretary of State John Kerry converse after the laying of wreaths at the cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on April 11, 2016. © Jiji)

diplomacy Abe Shinzō Japan-US relations G7 The Group of Seven Summit meeting Ise-Shima