At the current meeting of the disarmament committee of the United Nations millennium assembly, Japan has presented a draft resolution calling for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The proposal, which lays out a timetable for total nuclear disarmament, marks a step forward from previous appeals for the “ultimate” elimination of nuclear weapons. The Japanese initiative is in response to an explicit commitment to total nuclear disarmament made by the five nuclear powers in May this year at a review meeting on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — a commitment U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan hailed as a “historic agreement.”

The proposal makes the following points: First, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty should take effect by 2003. Second, negotiations for a treaty banning production of weapons-grade fissionable materials — the so-called cutoff treaty — should start immediately and be concluded by 2005. And third, the United States and Russia, even after signing the START III strategic arms reduction treaty, should make further efforts to cut their nuclear arsenals with a view to creating a nuclear weapons-free world.

Predictably, some of the nuclear powers have objected to that scenario, saying it is unrealistic. Japan should stick to its guns, however. Nuclear disarmament talks will not make progress unless the nuclear-weapons states swallow “bitter medicine.” But recent developments indicate that the momentum for nuclear disarmament seems to be waning.

The disarmament talks in Geneva adjourned for the rest of the year in September following the failure to kick off negotiations for the cutoff treaty. The Geneva talks have made no real progress over the past four years, and some officials now openly question the usefulness of the forum. It is not clear, either, when the CTBT will take effect, although the NPT review meeting emphasized the “importance and urgency” of putting it into force at an early date.

Japan should push more vigorously for prompt implementation of the test ban treaty. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, during his visits to India and Pakistan in August, secured pledges from their leaders to continue the freeze on nuclear testing until the treaty takes effect. But the two nations do not seem willing to sign the pact anytime soon. It is possible that Japan’s promise to resume part of its soft-loan commitments sent them the wrong signal: that Japan is willing to tolerate their delay in signing and ratifying the treaty.

It is also uncertain when the START II treaty between the U.S. and Russia will take effect or when START III talks will begin. A major reason for this may be U.S. plans for a national missile defense system.

Russia and China demand that the project be scrapped. European allies are critical of it. In Geneva, China’s insistence on parallel negotiations for the cutoff treaty and disarmament in space brought the session to a standstill. Russia has warned that it will abrogate all arms-control and -reduction treaties if the U.S. goes ahead and builds a missile defense shield and unilaterally abolishes the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.

Japan’s position on the NMD issue reveals a degree of ambivalence that reflects, at least in part, its dependence on U.S. nuclear protection. In his U.N. address in September, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono welcomed Washington’s decision to postpone NMD deployment as a “cautious, well-considered move that stresses the need for further dialogue.” But he did not go further than that.

As the world’s first and only atomic-bombed nation, Japan has played a central role in the global antinuclear movement. It now appears, however, that the nation is beginning to lose its influence in the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. At this spring’s NPT review session, for example, the seven-nation New Agenda Coalition, which includes Sweden and South Africa, extracted an explicit commitment to total nuclear disarmament from the five nuclear powers. In a way, Japan played only a secondary role.

The NPT meeting, it can be said, exposed the limitations of Japan’s “realistic antinuclear diplomacy,” which aims for step-by-step disarmament with the understanding and consent of the nuclear states, particularly the U.S. With the latest proposal for a phased elimination of nuclear weapons, Japan should reorient its efforts toward total nuclear disarmament without looking to the nuclear powers for reaction. But such efforts must be premised on a new security framework that does not depend only on U.S. nuclear deterrence. The reconciliation between North and South Korea is a development favorable to the building of such a framework.

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