Japanese Strategy for Balancing China: The Gravity of Universal Values in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

By Naoko Eto —

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan shakes hands with President Xi Jinping of China in October 2018. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

Dr. Naoko Eto is a research fellow of the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA). In 2019, Dr. Eto was a Visiting Scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Dr. Eto’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign policy. Read her full paper here.

The last 12 months have seen the Abe administration make a concerted effort to improve relations with China, although it is clear that the Japanese government regards continuous tensions in the area of security as inevitable. Along with this political shift, an adjustment was added to the Japanese strategic concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), which downplays the competitive elements of the approach, shifting a “strategy” to a “vision”. This shift has also occurred in the realm of ideas, competing norms, and values, a significant driver and framework in how the Abe government has long seen China. This blog is an excerpt of a larger paper I wrote on the issue of values in the Indo-Pacific for the Strategic Japan project.

As many observers of Japanese foreign policy will have noted, a “re-brand” of FOIP took place on November 6, 2018 at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia, when Prime Minister Abe officially mentioned FOIP as a vision. When the interpreter translated Abe’s remark as “Indo-Pacific strategy,” his staff pointed out the correction and the interpreter modified the term thereafter as “vision.” The trigger for this move was said to be the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in August, where several participating countries claimed that the term “strategy” made them hesitant to join. These reactions implied that some viewed FOIP as overly-confrontational toward China. In addition, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi had stressed the region’s inclusiveness at the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1, 2018, stating that the Indo-Pacific region stands for a free, open, and inclusive region, and that “it includes all nations in this geography and also others beyond who have a stake in it.”

Certainly, the element of “democracy” was diluted compared to the FOIP that was first laid out in the Diplomatic Bluebook 2017, in which the stance emphasizing “democracy, the rule of law, and the market economy” was clearly-stated. In contrast, democracy has now been replaced by the promotion and establishment of values (rule of law, freedom of navigation, etc.). As these comparisons reveal, Tokyo has been carefully playing down universal values, like democracy. This is not to mean that values are no longer of interest to Japanese foreign policy. Indeed, Tokyo continues to emphasize these with Quad members, with the United States, and with European powers – France and the United Kingdom (UK) – in its discussions.

Obviously, these values are seen – fairly or unfairly – by regional states as excluding of China. But, why is the concept of universal values problematic for the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? In my article, I review the political meaning of universal values in the PRC. Even in Chinese society, the concepts of peace, freedom, and equality. are fully respected as basic ethics. However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government refuse “Universal Values” (普世価値) — values they deem as originating from Western society. Interestingly, they do not reject them outright but instead claim these values with “Chinese characteristics”.

Why does the CCP overtly deny the Western idea of universal values? Some historical background is required to understand this attitude. At the end of the 1970s, China adopted a policy of increased openness, prompting a flow of science, technology, and capital into the country from abroad. However, information about economic conditions in industrialized countries was accompanied by discussions of political values. This ultimately led to the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989, which provided the final denouement.

​The situation reflects the PRC’s subsequent criticism of “Westernization and subversion” (西化分化), including universal values, such as the democracy and political rights. Given the role of these values in fragmenting national division, particularly with anti-government trends in minority autonomous regions, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, Westernization is accompanied by the notion that outside hostile forces have been spreading ideas and culture strategically to collapse China from the inside. This criticism of the West, which was common during the 1990s, abated in the 2000s, although it has come to the fore again in the 2010s.

As the PRC has swung away from values, the United States has begun to become increasingly critical of Beijing. In the second half of 2018, the debate over whether U.S.–China relations have entered a new cold war intensified with the address by U.S. vice president Mike Pence, in October 2018 at the Hudson Institute, which resembled UK prime minister Winston Churchill’s talk of an iron curtain in 1946. However, today’s international system is not at the so-called cold war stage. The international community, including the United States and the PRC, enjoys intimate economic ties and is far from formulating another block-structured relationship. If we were to use the phrase New Cold War, we would need to produce a new definition of “cold war.”

So far, China has not been able to provide a comprehensive order or values that can substitute the current liberal democratic order in the Asia Pacific. Yet, the CCP government has been working hard for years to sway international opinion, and discussions to provide values from China to replace universal values has flourished under the Xi administration. Fueling this defiance is a deep-seated perception inside China that the country’s voice in international affairs has not been commensurate with its emerging power due to international concerns over the “China threat” and criticism of China’s human rights record. It is in the context of this dilemma that the term “discourse power” (话语权) has emerged as a buzzword in the first decade of this century. Debate over discourse power has reached a major turning point under the initiative of the Xi administration.

To stabilize the Indo-Pacific region against the export of Chinese values and notions in its Belt and Road Initiative, Japan has initiated a policy of promoting development aid, such as infrastructure development and military cooperation ( such as capacity-building support, countermeasures against piracy.), toward an inclusive FOIP vision. The political influence that China holds over other countries is mainly based on its economic power and its attractive market, which may also contribute to the expansion of their military activities, while there appears to be no desire for the Chinese political system itself. Japanese policy on FOIP is therefore a measure designed essentially to avoid excluding non-democratic states in the region and is relevant from the perspective of suppressing the authoritative exercise of China’s power.

This orientation can also be understood as an extension of Japan’s conventional development cooperation policy, which aims to tackle “problems such as political and economic instability owing to poor governance and other factors, internal disparities, sustainability issues, and the ‘middle income trap.’” Under this policy, democracy is listed as an important support objective, alongside the rule of law and good governance.

As the first Abe administration proclaimed “Value-oriented Diplomacy” — diplomacy based on universal values such as freedom, democracy, respect of fundamental human rights, and the rule of law — a policy that is tied to “value” has been embedded in Japanese diplomacy. Keywords such as democracy, human rights, and rule of law imply the exclusion of countries that do not comply with these. From the political context of Japan, it has been regarded as a de facto exclusion of the PRC. The Japanese strategy toward China, however, has become a dual approach, along with rapprochement; the competitive strategy in economic and security areas and the cooperative strategy shown in the FOIP. In other words, the FOIP for Japan has shifted to focus more on economic development aid initiatives, in which China can play a cooperative role.

Therefore, the immediate aim of FOIP is to improve and support existing democratic states rather than to expand democracy.

Dr. Naoko Eto is an associate senior research fellow at the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization (IDE-JETRO).


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