By K. V. Kesavan
Next month (May 26–27), Japan is hosting the Group–7 meeting at Ise Shima. Earlier this month, as a forerunner to the main meeting, the foreign ministers of G–7 met in Hiroshima. Successive Japanese governments have always considered holding this high profile meeting as a significant diplomatic demonstration underlining the importance of their country. Japan has so far held the meeting of the Group five times since 1979 — the last meeting being in 2008 in Toyako, Hokkaido, when Yasuo Fukuda was the prime minister.
While every Japanese prime minister attaches utmost importance to the high–level meeting, there are special reasons this time for Shinzo Abe to feel upbeat about it. In fact, the timing of the meeting is significant for two reasons. As Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida noted in his recent article to CNN on April 9, the rift between the nuclear and non–nuclear weapons states has grown deeper following the failure of the last NPT Review Conference. Further, North Korea’s nuclear test in January 2016, followed by its ballistic missile tests in February and March, posed a serious threat not only to the East Asian region, but also, to the entire international community. In addition, terrorist attacks such as those that occurred in Paris and Brussels further heightened those concerns. The G–7 Summit is expected to address these issues.
Second, the meeting carries a lot of implications from the point of Japanese domestic politics as well. The focus of the Japanese political parties and electorate is now concentrated on the outcome of the July upper house election which would be crucial for Abe to carry forward his political agenda, including the amendment of the Constitution, implementation of various legislative measures on security passed last year and the levying of the second phase of the consumption tax in 2017. If Abe is able to win two thirds majority in the upper house, it could set in motion the long process of constitutional amendment.
Abe believes that the G–7 Summit will greatly enhance the position of his government in the eyes of the electorate and boost his chances of achieving his political goals. On the contrary, the Japanese opposition, which remained badly divided and unprepared, has just taken certain steps to project a united front to stall Abe’s efforts. Realising its blunders during 2009–12 when it was in power, Katsuya Okada, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan ((DPJ), has taken certain steps to rally the opposition parties under one umbrella. The DPJ and another opposition party, the Japan Innovation Party, have now merged to form a new entity called Minshinto to pose a challenge to prevent Abe from winning 2/3 majority in the upper house.
Though it is still not clear, they appear even to be ready to have electoral adjustments with the Communist Party of Japan (JCP) which has been so far treated as a political outcast all these years. If this happens, it will set a new trend in Japanese politics with long–term implications.
As a preliminary step, the G–7 foreign ministers’ conference was held in Hiroshima on April 10 and 11. Foreign Minister Kishida, who hails from Hiroshima, took exceptional interest in highlighting the deliberations of the meeting. In particular, he wanted the Hiroshima parley to send a clear statement to the world on nuclear disarmament, terrorism and maritime security. Kishida believed that a statement on disarmament and terrorism made from Hiroshima would carry a special meaning and significance. Incidentally, the visit made by John Kerry to Hiroshima was the first ever made by a serving US Secretary of State and as such it carried a great deal of symbolic significance.
One direct outcome of Kerry’s visit is the rising expectation among many Japanese about a possible trip to Hiroshima by President Barack Obama himself when he comes to Japan for the May Summit. Public opinion in Japan is overwhelmingly in favour of such a visit. But opinion in the US is sharply divided as many fear that such a visit could also give rise to demands for an apology from the US President for the use of atomic bombs in 1945. Political analysts also worry somewhat about its possible adverse impact on the current presidential campaign in the US. The White House is carefully weighing its options before taking a decision on Obama’s visit.
Apart from the long customary joint statement that the foreign ministers make every year, two other statements made by them have drawn considerable attention. First, the Hiroshima Declaration issued by them makes a strong case for nuclear disarmament and non–proliferation. Again as mentioned earlier, any statement on disarmament coming particularly from Hiroshima carries special significance because of the traumatic experiences of the city in 1945. Second, their statement on maritime security lists a number of measures for ensuring international cooperation for maintaining peace in the oceans. To be sure, even the statement issued by the foreign ministers last year in Lubeck, Germany, talked about several aspects of maritime security. The present statement on maritime security strongly reiterates a number of measures for establishing a maritime order based on the universally recognised principles of international law such as the UNCLOS. While stressing their commitment to freedom of navigation and over flight, they expressed their concern about the deteriorating situation in the East and South China seas and expressed their opposition to any provocative, unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and heighten tensions.
As expected, China has reacted very sharply to the statement. Anticipating an adverse statement, China had urged Japan, even as early as February this year, not to take up the South China issue at the G–7 meetings. In fact, following the meeting between Abe and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in Seoul November 2015, relations between the two courtiers seemed to be improving. They agreed to resume the Japan–China High–Level Economic Dialogue, reopen talks on the joint development of gas fields in the East China Sea and quickly launch the Japan–China Maritime and Communication mechanism to avoid any sudden crisis situation.
But the G–7 foreign ministers’ statement on maritime security has angered China which described it as an unwarranted “interference in China’s internal affairs”. Accusing Japan of having “hijacked the G–7 platform to hype the South China Sea issue”, China urged Japan to stay away from the South China Sea issue as it is not a party directly involved in it.