At Hiroshima, Will an Energized Japan Reconnect a Fracturing World?

Mireya Solis
Wednesday, May 17, 2023, 9:05 AM
Leading up to its hosting of the G-7 summit this week, Japan has weaved together economic statecraft and proactive security diplomacy to reinvent itself as a network power.
Foreign Ministers of the G7 meet in Karuizawa, Japan, in April of 2023. (U.K. Gov.,; CC BY 2.0,

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Editor’s Note: Japan is hosting a G-7 Summit in Hiroshima later this week, and it showcases Tokyo’s determination to be a significant security and economic leader. My Brookings colleague Mireya Solis assesses Japan’s ambitions and approach and praises Tokyo’s vigor and emphasis on diplomatic networks.

Daniel Byman


On May 19, the leaders of the Group of 7 (G-7) industrialized economies will arrive at Hiroshima—the Japanese city that became a watchword for the catastrophic consequences of unbridled geopolitical conflict. Such lessons do not feel remote at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted at the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, North Korea is recklessly testing nuclear-capable missiles, and concerns that Taiwan could bring China and the U.S. into a hot war are running high. 

A transformed Japan will chair the G-7. As the only Asian member, Japan joined the grouping in the early 1970s on the heels of its economic miracle, but as a geopolitical lightweight. For decades it clung to a passive security policy focused on its need for self-defense under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. And in the recent past, Japan has felt acutely its diminished relative capabilities. Decades of slow growth and flatlined defense expenditures enabled China to take second place in world gross domestic product (GDP) rankings and create a vast gap in military power.

But Japan has heft that is easy to overlook with these quantitative rankings. Tokyo brings to the table a different skill set: the leveraging of networks. Japanese companies pioneered the global supply revolution with the embrace of overseas production since the mid-1980s. Today, Japanese firms continue to hold dominant positions in key segments of advanced manufacturing, making them—in the parlance of today’s techno-nationalism—critical nodes in global supply chains. The Japanese government has also upped its game, developing in the past decade a bona fide grand strategy: one guided by the mantra of connectivity, weaving together the tools of economic statecraft and proactive security diplomacy. 

The brand name for Japan’s statecraft is the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). It includes core principles for a stable international order such as rule of law, freedom of navigation, and freedom from coercion. It does not rest on a predicate of zero-sum competition with China, and it has tangible economic and security cooperation benefits. 

The metamorphosis is clear: Japan has emerged as a broker of mega trade agreements (such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)), a peer competitor to China on infrastructure finance, a booster of Southeast Asian maritime law enforcement, and a champion of cooperation among maritime democracies in the Quad. Japan has deepened its alliance with the United States, while building security partnerships with diverse countries such as Australia, India, Vietnam, and the U.K

More acute geopolitical competition, whether in Europe or in the Indo-Pacific, has spurred more Japanese security activism. Lamenting the most severe environment since World War II, Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy unequivocally called China its biggest security challenge, admonishing Beijing to abide by international law in its dealings with other nations. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also cast a long shadow on Japan’s strategic thinking. Acutely aware that only countries willing to defend themselves will be helped by others, the Japanese government pledged to increase defense expenditures to $318 billion, equivalent to 2 percent of Japan’s GDP in five years’ time. This goal is to be achieved by a 50 percent increase in core defense spending and by including in the defense budget line items such as public infrastructure, the Coast Guard, cybersecurity, and research and development. The government also secured a mandate to develop counterstrike capabilities that blur the line between offensive and defensive action. In this way, long-standing taboos in Japanese security policy—an informal ceiling of 1 percent of GDP defense expenditures and the acquisition of purely defensive military equipment—fell to the wayside. 

A G-7 leaders’ meeting in Asia will put the threats to stability in the Indo-Pacific into sharper focus. Tokyo wants answers to a critical question: Can this group of like-minded democracies find common purpose in confronting revisionist states in Europe and Asia? French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent warning for Europe not to get caught in others’ conflicts landed with a thud. In sharp contrast, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has insisted that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.” Kishida’s analogy does not mean he believes that Russia and China represent the same kind of strategic challenge or follow an identical playbook, or that the geopolitical fault lines in each region matter equally to every member of the G-7. Rather, it points to a more fundamental truth: Unchecked use of force or coercion to trample on others’ territorial sovereignty is to everyone’s detriment, because it weakens the rules-based order everywhere.

Kishida has paid a price for speaking out even as inflation has returned through energy price hikes. Russia has declared Japan an unfriendly country and is now actively working with China to step up pressure on Japan. Case in point is the deployment of Russian and Chinese strategic bombers near the Japanese territory when Tokyo hosted the Quad leaders’ summit in spring 2022.

But Tokyo’s strategic network has expanded with deepening Japan-Europe ties. Kishida is the first Japanese leader to attend a NATO summit. Kishida’s meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv last March marked the first time a postwar Japanese leader set foot in a war zone.

Tokyo hopes to steer the G-7’s approach to reduce overdependence on China without succumbing to economic nationalism. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s pledge that the goal is to de-risk, not decouple, from China offers positive momentum. Yet the hurdles are high. It will require everyone to agree on identifying the problems and solutions (sweeping sanctions for wartime, de-risking for strained peace times). Democracies will need to rein in beggar-thy-neighbor industrial policies against each other and to act together against Chinese economic coercion. Japan also remains committed to the World Trade Organization’s nondiscrimination principle—keenly aware of the centrality of a rules-based economic order for a trade-dependent nation—and has refused to follow Washington’s lead in imposing China-specific export controls or to single out China-bound investments for national security screening.

At the G-7, Japan aims to practice inclusive diplomacy and avoid the dynamics of the “West vs. the Rest.” The reluctance of scores of developing countries to condemn Russia’s aggression stunned Tokyo. It led to a call for more meaningful engagement with the Global South by offering practical development assistance. Kishida has invited South Korea, India, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Ukraine, Comoros, and the Cook Islands to come to Hiroshima in order to broaden the agenda to include issues such as food and energy security and debt sustainability. It is putting money behind the proposition that developing countries must be included to hold a stake in the international system. Last March, Japan relaunched FOIP with a promise to invest by 2030 an additional $75 billion in public and private funds for infrastructure projects to now cover the Middle East and Latin America. Tokyo has taken keen interest in the unfolding debt crisis in the developing world, assuming a central role in the restructuring of Sri Lanka’s debt.

The world is not deglobalizing, nor can autarky provide security and prosperity. In these troubled times, smart statecraft builds strategic indispensability, helping a country become the partner of choice in deepening economic, technological, and security cooperation. Japan has a point. The future is networked.

Mireya Solís is director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, Knight Chair in Japan Studies, and Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, where she specializes in Japanese foreign economic policy, international trade policy, and U.S. economic statecraft in Asia. She is the author of the forthcoming book Japan’s Quiet Leadership: Reshaping the Indo-Pacific.

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