The United States and the Soviet Union started developing fusion weapons after US atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Nuclear stockpiles peaked in 1986 with more than 64,000 warheads. Today, the US and Russia own around 90 per cent of all nuclear warheads.
The US, Russia, China, France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea combined hold close to 13,000 nuclear weapons. An additional 27 countries “endorse” nuclear armament by allowing the potential use of nuclear weapons on their behalf as part of defence alliances.
The B83 gravity bomb – the world’s most potent weapon currently in service – is about 80 times more powerful than the “Little Boy” bomb which killed tens of thousands of people in Hiroshima.
Nuclear disarmament has taken wavering directions since 1945. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created in 1957 to ensure the peaceful use of nuclear technology. The United Nations established the framework of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which the US, Soviet Union and Britain signed in 1968.
Non-proliferation improved with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine giving up their nuclear weapons by 1992. Other important developments include North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT and Iran’s uranium enrichment programme. India’s race to the Nuclear Suppliers Group also raised questions as, unlike other members, it is not an NPT signatory.
Nuclear weapons are humanity’s most dangerous weapon. They can destroy lives and ecosystems, creating a nuclear winter and food shortages as the spread and duration of radioactivity is uncontrollable. There are no mechanisms or agencies equipped to deal with the catastrophic effects of a nuclear war.
The Ukraine war been escalating with Russian missile and drone attacks, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s occasional nuclear threat. The nuclear deterrence doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) – the condition that a nuclear attack might be reciprocated – has helped prevent World War III. To quote Winston Churchill, “safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation”.
Since it has been paused after the end of the Cold War, MAD lacks teeth in the context of modern, differently waged wars. The Ukraine war questions the efficacy of MAD as Russian expansionism in its neighbourhood dwarfs the possibility of any potential nuclear retaliation from Nato.
On the other hand, countries such as North Korea and Iran have felt emboldened by the possibility of nuclear arms acquisition as an effective deterrence against any possible attack, as they could not be brought under any formal or informal regulatory framework.
Japan adopted the Western model of industrialisation to restart its economy after World War II. The US-Japan relationship has since remained mutually beneficial, wherein Japan would focus on redevelopment and the US provided security. For more than 70 years, Japan has remained pacifist.
However, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe supported abandoning those pacifist values, something that has gained relevance with nuclear-armed North Korea firing ballistic missiles over Japan. While Japan relies on the US nuclear deterrent, some worry that Tokyo’s pacifism makes it vulnerable to external threats. With the world’s third-largest economy and great international political capital, the question is how long Japan can afford to uphold the pacifist values enshrined in Article 9 of its constitution.
Such a policy could have unforeseen consequences in the cyber era as the rules of engagement are changing rapidly. In cyber warfare, neither the status quo nor complacency will serve the interests of any country well in an ecosystem where activism is the key weapon for any aggressor.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has introduced a five-step “Hiroshima Action Plan” to create a world without nuclear weapons. It involves shared recognition of the cause, increased transparency by nuclear states, continuing to decrease the global stockpile of nuclear weapons, securing non-proliferation while promoting peaceful use of nuclear energy and encouraging better understanding of the realities of nuclear weapons.
He expressed an intention to use the 2023 Group of 7 summit for the same, choosing Hiroshima as the venue.
Japan is the third-largest financial contributor to the UN, and its support is aimed at securing peace, security and disarmament. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has expressed optimism about Japan’s leadership on global issues, including peacekeeping on the occasion of its G7 presidency and UN Security Council membership.
Apart from calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, Japan has stayed the course in its efforts for non-proliferation and peacekeeping. In line with this vision, Kishida also attended the first leaders’ meeting of the Friends of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty group.
As the only country to be the victim of a nuclear attack and then have constitutionally underpinned pacifist values, Japan is in a unique position to lead the global discourse on the dangers of nuclear rhetoric, as well as the dire consequences of any potential nuclear attack.
Given its previous G20 presidency in 2019 and current G7 leadership, the country has both the global clout and the moral high ground to pursue dialogue towards denuclearisation with the world’s eminent nuclear powers, which includes the US, Russia, China and others. Will Japan rise to the occasion to lead from the front or continue to shy away from the bold leadership that the current reality demands?
Tetsushi Sonobe is dean and chief executive of the Tokyo-based Asian Development Bank Institute
Professor Syed Munir Khasru is chairman of the international think tank IPAG Asia Pacific, Australia, and co-chair of the Task Force on Peace, Security, and Global Governance under the G7 Japan Presidency