G20 Blunder Mars Japanese Diplomacy


Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa’s absence at the Group of 20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in early March offended host country India and raised serious questions in Japan about the judgment of its leaders.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Hayashi Yoshimasa was conspicuously absent from the Group of 20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in New Delhi March 1–2.(*1) The decision to have Japan’s top diplomat skip the conference for the first time since it became a regular event in 2017 ranks as a major blunder, undermining an important bilateral relationship and squandering an opportunity for Japan, as the 2023 Group of Seven chair, to help rally opinion in the Global South against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Snubbing a Strategic Partner

For most of the world, the March 1–2 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was a major diplomatic event, as evidenced by the presence of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Qi Gang, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In addition to the G20 countries—including the emerging economies of Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa (BRICS)—there were 9 non-members, including Egypt, in attendance at the invitation of India, which holds the G20 presidency. Starting just days after the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the meeting was clearly an important occasion for India, which aspires to leadership of the Global South. In his opening remarks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on the participants to seek common ground, saying, “We should not allow issues that we cannot resolve together to come in the way of those we can.”

The Japan-India relationship has a pivotal role to play in international affairs at a time of rising geopolitical tensions. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō took the first step in putting that relationship on a new footing with his “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech, delivered to the Indian parliament in August 2007. From that concept emerged Abe’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative. Abe also reached out to Australia and the United States to establish the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, leading to regular summits between the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. A close, cooperative relationship between Japan and India was one of the signal diplomatic achievements that Abe passed on to his successors, Prime Ministers Suga Yoshihide and Kishida Fumio. The Kishida administration risked squandering this legacy when it opted to snub the 2023 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, hosted and chaired by India.

The slight did not go unnoticed by the Indian media, which called the move “unbelievable” (Hindustan Times) and suggested that it could “cast some shadow over New Delhi–Tokyo ties (Economic Times).

Dropping the Ball on Ukraine

On February 24, one year after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Kishida held a G7 leaders’ video conference, following which the leaders released a statement reaffirming their commitment to assisting Ukraine while strengthening sanctions against Russia. In his remarks, Kishida emphasized the importance of securing the support and cooperation of the broader international community and engaging with the Global South. Shortly thereafter, the first G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting (held in Bengaluru, India, February 22–25) released a summary and outcome document stating that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine,” while noting that Russia and China disagreed.

The Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that followed was the scene of fiercely competitive diplomacy by the United States and its European allies on the one hand and China and Russia on the other. Both sides assiduously lobbied the developing countries, keenly aware that the overall tenor of international public opinion hinges largely on the stance of the Global South. It was a situation that the Japanese government could easily have foreseen. Yet our foreign minister excused himself from this crucial contest, and there was no sign of direct, intensive, top-level diplomacy on Japan’s part, either on the multilateral level or bilaterally, with India.

Foreign Minister Hayashi recently told the Japanese media, “The broad involvement and support of the international community is essential to counter Russian aggression. It’s important to strengthen relations with the emerging and developing countries, which are growing in economic power and influence.” Unfortunately, the government’s actions have not measured up to its rhetoric.

Misplaced Priorities

Why, then, did Japan’s foreign minister not attend such an important event? Thus far, neither the government, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, nor the Diet has satisfactorily addressed the issue.

The decision for Hayashi to skip the G-20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was only made on February 28, one day before the conference’s start. That was when a board meeting of the House of Councillors Committee on the Budget decided to request the presence of the prime minister and all of his cabinet members at the committee’s “basic questioning” session on March 1 and 2. At a press conference on the day of the board meeting, Seko Hiroshige, secretary general for the LDP in the House of Councillors, portrayed the decision as unavoidable, given the importance of basic questioning, which the prime minister and his entire cabinet customarily attend. From this, it was apparent that LDP politicians themselves made the decision.

While Article 63 of the Constitution of Japan states that “the Prime Minister and other Ministers of State must appear when their presence is required in order to give answers or explanations,” it is permissible for a deputy minister or other ministry official to answer questions on behalf of a cabinet member under legislation passed in 1999 (Act on the Vitalization of Diet Deliberations and the Establishment of the Policy-making System with Political Leadership). Nonetheless, it remains customary for all cabinet members to appear for basic questioning, and a rigid, unthinking adherence to convention continues to dominate Diet proceedings. One might say that this rigidity, combined with an insensitivity to international affairs—all too common among upper house LDP lawmakers—resulted in Hayashi’s controversial absence from the G-20 meeting.

In the end, Hayashi’s answers to the upper house Budget Committee over the two-day period in question occupied less than three minutes (53 seconds on March 1 and a minute and 54 seconds on March 2), eliciting criticism from opposition and government figures alike. Senior politicians publicly questioned this use of the minister’s time and wondered why the Foreign Ministry had failed to coordinate with the LDP and the Diet.

Asked about the matter in the upper house Budget Committee, Prime Minister Kishida replied vaguely that the decision was made “taking into account all the factors, including the Diet’s schedule.” In fact, as far as one can ascertain, neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Foreign Ministry made any determined effort in advance to ensure that Hayashi could attend the G-20 meeting. To prevent a repeat of this sort of blunder, the Diet, the government and ruling party, and the Foreign Ministry must conduct a serious critical review of the process that produced a decision damaging to our national interest without a word of protest from anyone involved.

By snubbing the March G-20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, Japan not only undermined relations with an important partner but also missed an excellent opportunity to deepen ties with the Global South and expand the scope of Japanese diplomacy. The Japanese press has criticized the Diet as a dinosaur, too fixated on domestic politics and established parliamentary procedure to respond flexibly to an international situation affecting the national interest. With the critical G-7 Hiroshima Summit in the offing, the diplomatic conduct of both the foreign minister and the prime minister must show greater adaptability to circumstances. The Diet, for its part, must respect and support their judgment instead of reflexively bowing to convention.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (on screen) addresses the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi on March 2, 2023. © AFP/Jiji.)

(*1) ^ Deputy Foreign Minister Yamada Kenji attended the conference, and Foreign Minister Hayashi attended the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi on March 3.—Ed.

diplomacy Kishida Fumio G20