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Japan Stands Firm as a NATO Partner Defending the Rules-Based Order 

Prime Minister Kishida also hailed a "new era" in relations with South Korea when he met President Yoon at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.



NATO heads of state and invited guests meet on the second day of the summit held in Vilnius, Lithuania. July 12, 2023. (via Cabinet Office of Japan)

United States President Joe Biden faced a choice in Vilnius. He could embark on a series of somewhat arduous meetings with the leaders of NATO countries and partner states. Or he could make an exciting speech to an appreciative audience.

Not surprisingly, he chose the latter option - guaranteeing coverage on all the major US television networks and around the world.

Mr Biden took to the podium in the courtyard of Vilnius University. There he declared that the West will never abandon Ukraine and its fight against Russia's invasion.

The crowd cheered and many people waved Ukrainian flags. Lithuania - which hosted the summit - is an ardent supporter of Ukraine.

Mr Biden insisted that democracies around the world would continue to stand against the "might is right" view of autocratic leaders.

"The defense of freedom is not the work of a day or a year. It is the calling of our lifetime, of all time," he said. (Watch the speech on the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) YouTube channel.)

Leaders assembled at the NATO meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania hold a ceremony to announce their joint declaration of support for Ukraine. (via Cabinet Office of Japan)

Ukraine Dilemmas

Ukraine dominated the agenda of the two-day meeting in Vilnius. There was a vigorous debate about when and how Ukraine might become a NATO member. There was also frustration that its leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy - who attended the event - appears to have been taking for granted the generous military support his country is receiving.

These are not issues that directly concern the government of Japan. Tokyo does not seek NATO membership and therefore cannot decide on Ukraine's application to join the alliance. Furthermore, for constitutional reasons, Japan does not supply lethal weapons to support Ukraine's fight against Russia. It does, however, provide generous humanitarian aid, and offers strong diplomatic support.

South Korea's More Difficult Choice

South Korea's president, Yoon Suk-Yeol, also attended the NATO summit as an observer. His country faces a starker choice when it comes to the issue of arming the Ukrainian army.

Seoul has been under pressure from the Americans to send weapons to Kyiv. But it has been reluctant to do so, saying it would be unlawful to arm a nation at war.


Other factors may also influence South Korea's position. It may well have moral qualms about the decision by the United States to send cluster munitions to Ukraine. Many countries including Japan have signed an international treaty banning their use. Their reasons to do so are based on warnings the weapons cause serious collateral damage.

In addition, some South Korean politicians have said that the primary duty of the nation's defense industry is to protect their country from an immediate threat from the North, rather than supporting a combatant in a  European war.

Leaders of the AP4 countries stand firm along with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Vilnius. July 12, 2023. (via Cabinet Office of Japan)

North Korea Aggravations During the Summit

During the NATO summit in Vilnius, the North Koreans fired a missile that landed between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

President Yoon convened an emergency meeting of his national security committee, telling officials to make clear to Pyongyang that illegal acts by North Korea will come at a price, according to the news agency, Yonhap.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida condemned the launch and pledged closer cooperation with South Korea. "North Korea has been launching ballistic missiles with an increased frequency," Mr Kishida also told reporters in Vilnius. "The series of actions are threatening our country and region. It is absolutely unacceptable."

There was no trilateral meeting involving the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea on the sidelines of the summit in Vilnius. However, earlier in the week, Kurt Campbell, the US National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, told a South Korean delegation that President Joe Biden is pleased with the rapprochement between the East Asian nations.

Leaders of the AP4 countries hold hands in solidarity on the sidelines of the NATO meeting in Vilnius. (via Cabinet Office of Japan)

AP4: NATO's Indo-Pacific Partners 

On July 12th, Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon joined a meeting of NATO's Indo-Pacific partner countries. The group - known as the AP4 - also includes Australia and New Zealand.

The meeting was held behind closed doors. But before it began, NATO's Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg commented: "The war in Ukraine has global ramifications. Terrorists and cyber threats know no borders. And authoritarian regimes are coming closer together, so we must stand together for the rules-based international order."

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol shake hands on the sidelines of the NATO Summit. In Vilnius on July 12. (via Cabinet Office of Japan.)

Discussing Safe Discharge of Fukushima Treated Water

In Vilnius, the leaders of South Korea and Japan also held a 30-minute meeting. It was the sixth time they had met bilaterally since Mr Yoon became president in the summer of 2022.

They discussed the plan to release treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the sea. Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a detailed scientific report on the issue. The report concluded that the move "would have a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment."

Mr Kishida pledged to do everything possible to ensure the health of the Japanese and South Korean people. President Yoon has not tabled an official protest to the plan. Instead, he said that South Korean experts would monitor the water and will ask for the discharge to be stopped if the concentration of radioactive material exceeds a standard level.  

In addition, the two leaders agreed to work towards holding high-level economic talks by the end of 2023. 

"As we usher in a new era of Japan-Korea relations together, I welcome the progress being made broadly, by both the government and the private sector," said Prime Minister Kishida.


Mr Yoon said he believes the two countries working together will be of "great help in promoting peace and prosperity in the region and in resolving global issues." He added that South Korea and Japan should work closely with NATO "to safeguard peace in the Indo-Pacific region."


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Duncan Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his other articles and essays.

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