Hailing from Hiroshima, it is little surprise the nuclear bombs dropped in Japan to end World War II weigh heavily on the mind of the country’s prime minister Fumio Kishida.

As foreign minister in 2016, Kishida reportedly played an influential role in Barack Obama becoming the first sitting US president to visit the city, while he has already signalled his intent to hold next year’s G7 summit in the same place.

The desire to avoid a repeat of that tragedy lay at the heart of Kishida’s keynote address to open this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, a sobering speech which underscored the geopolitical tensions in both Asia and the wider world.

It was not long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earned a mention, the Prime Minister saying no country could afford to “shrug off” the war as someone else’s problem.

“It is a situation that shakes the very foundations of the international order, which every country and individual gathered here today should regard as their own affair.”

The international community “now stands at a historic crossroads”, Kishida said, harking back to the Cold War and the parallels to a modern world dividing into two camps with tensions bubbling away and threatening to boil over.

Since taking office late last year, he has been outspoken in addressing the security issues concerning Japan.

That continued in his speech, with territorial disputes in the South China Sea cited as an example of the root cause of the region’s problems.

“Can the rule-based international order we have built through hard work, dialogue and consensus be upheld, and the march of peace and prosperity continue?

“Or will we return to a lawless world where rules are ignored and broken, where unilateral changes to the status quo by force are unchallenged and accepted, and where the strong coerce the weak militarily or economically? That is the choice we have to make today.”

“The threat of nuclear weapons, let alone the use of them, should never be tolerated. As the Prime Minister of the only country that has suffered the devastation of atomic bombings, I strongly appeal for this.”
– Fumio Kishida

That view was unsurprising, shared as it is by many world leaders, but his emphasis on the threat of nuclear weapons was more striking.

Kishida raised concerns about the threat of an “imminent” nuclear test by North Korea, while noting the Ukraine invasion had not only increased the possibility of Russia deploying nuclear weapons but could spark other countries to look to develop their own arsenal.

“The threat of nuclear weapons, let alone the use of them, should never be tolerated. As the prime minister of the only country that has suffered the devastation of atomic bombings, I strongly appeal for this.”

That concern was amplified by IISS Europe executive director Dr Ben Schreer, who earlier in the day spoke about the lessons some would take from the current unrest.

“If you’re not in an alliance, you have a problem. Either you need an ally very quickly – presumably a very powerful one, one with nuclear weapons and conventional capabilities – or you don’t give up nuclear weapons, or you build your own.”

A push to bring about a world without nuclear weapons – including an encouragement for the US and China to sit down together for disarmament talks – was among the five pillars of what he dubbed the “Kishida vision for peace”.

But securing that peace requires military expansion, with the Prime Minister reiterating a commitment to increase Japan’s defence spending to two percent of GDP and saying he would set out a new national security strategy by the end of the year.

“We will not rule out any options including so-called counter strike capabilities, and will realistically consider what is necessary to protect the lives and livelihoods of our people,” Kishida said.

The Quad security alliance with Australia, the US and India appears set to grow further in prominence, with Kishida saying the grouping would provide US$50 billion in infrastructure assistance and investment to the Indo-Pacific over the next five years.

David Capie, the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, described the speech as “an impressive vision for how Japan will respond to what it sees as a dramatically worsening security environment”, with greater military heft married with a desire to develop new partners around the world.

Pacific in the spotlight

The smaller nations of the Pacific did not escape the spotlight in the speech, with the region described as an important partner and a promise made to help address the existential challenge of climate change.

Capie noted that was a change from the last Japanese Prime Minister to address the Shangri-La Dialogue, with Shinzo Abe not mentioning the Pacific once in a 2014 speech.

“Back then, the focus of competition was much more on maritime east Asia. Fast forward eight years and the South Pacific was right in there with those other worries.”

It seems hardly coincidental that the warm words followed hand-wringing over China’s diplomatic tour of the Pacific, and the region is likely to enjoy further attention throughout the summit.

Kishida’s remarks that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”, while a repetition of similar comments from earlier in the year, are likely to draw the greatest condemnation from Beijing.

In a piece published before Kishida had even delivered his address, the CCP-owned Global Times accused the Japanese leader of endangering the region with his rhetoric.

Citing Japanese reports about the his likely remarks, the outlet said Kishida’s role “cannot be more evident – fanning the flames on the platform, misleading the agenda, making excuses for its future increase of military spending and coordinating with the US to expand the latter’s gang in the region under the framework of the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’.”

But while a number of Kishida’s comments could only be interpreted as being aimed towards Beijing, he was not as hawkish as Chinese media anticipated.

With the US and China due to give duelling visions for the world order over the weekend, that candour [in the relationship] could be put to the test.

Taiwan received only a passing mention – with Kishida emphasising the importance of “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” – while direct confrontation with China was avoided.

“For all the threats and challenges he listed, I don’t think he mentioned China by name once,” Capie said.

The day’s most significant remarks about the Asian superpower may have come behind closed doors, as US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe for the first time since the change of administration in Washington.

What was meant to be a 30-minute meeting reportedly extended to nearly an hour, with Wei describing the discussion as “candid” to waiting reporters as he exited the talks.

According to a Pentagon readout of the meeting reported by American outlets, Austin raised the need to “responsibly manage competition and maintain open lines of communication” – a fit with US talk going into Shangri-La of establishing ‘guardrails’ for the relationship.

Defence analysts have repeatedly raised concerns about the potential for an accidental clash to escalate into something more serious, with the spotlight on Chinese military aircraft flying into Taiwan’s defence zone and carrying out aggressive manoeuvres against US-aligned planes in the region.

Beijing has its own Taiwan-related grievances, too, with the recent announcement of $120 million in new American arms sales to Taiwan.

The willingness to at least communicate over their differences will be welcomed by many, particularly in the context of Kishida’s grim nuclear spectre.

But with Austin and Wei due to give duelling visions for the world order over the weekend, that candour could be put to the test.

* Sam Sachdeva is attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore courtesy of a media grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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