The Indo-Pacific in Japan’s Foreign Policy

By Ryo Sahashi —

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan meeting with U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Phil Davidson in June 2018. Source: #PACOM’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Dr. Ryo Sahashi is an associate professor of International Politics at the University of Tokyo. In 2019, Dr. Sahashi was a Visiting Scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Dr. Sahashi’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign policy. Read his full paper here.

The “Indo-Pacific” is a regional concept the Shinzo Abe administration has developed over the past few years. In his Policy Speech to the Diet in January 2019, Prime Minister Abe emphasized a “Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP)” as the aim of Japan’s foreign policy. Many observers inside and outside Japan have regarded FOIP as Tokyo’s effort to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Some observers even point to Abe’s speech in New Delhi in 2007 as the foundation for this concept of mega-region-building in the Indo-Pacific, which now includes the United States.  In fact, following Japan’s lead, U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration has started to employ FOIP in various speeches since 2017. However, the Japanese government recently called FOIP a “vision” instead of a “strategy” as it was originally defined, and Japan also seeks to collaborate with BRI through private sector initiatives in partner countries. This change of emphasis has confused Japan watchers about Japan’s true intentions.

This confusion does not mean Japan’s security posture is transforming, or its dependence on the alliance with the United States is under review in Tokyo. Indeed, the opposite is true. As Japan’s new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) from December 2018 eloquently shows, Japan’s strategy, as well as security assessment, puts the United States in a central position to Japan’s defense. The NDPG also calls for an enhancement of the dense web of security relationships with U.S. allies and partners, including Australia, India, ASEAN, France and the remaining ‘Five Eyes’ (New Zealand, Canada, and the UK). Japan’s understanding of the balance of power has been more acute and serious, and its appetite for security cooperation with the United States and other key countries has increased as a result. So, why is the Abe government pushing back at what it sees as an over-competitive approach from Washington?

Tokyo is torn between an inclusive regional approach with China versus its long-term security concerns about Chinese regional intentions. This stems partly from the current trend in the region of de-linking economic and securities considerations. Ultimately, the gap between Japan’s strategic FOIP (its “strategy”) and its inclusive FOIP (its “vision’) will present Japanese policymakers with a dilemma over the next decade and there is little that Tokyo can do to escape this structural reality.

The concept of Indo-Pacific is still subtle, diplomatic, and flexible. However, the baseline of this concept is to guide Japan’s approach to the wider Asian region, including South Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. Japanese diplomacy has not traditionally exhorted explicit guiding principles, but the Indo-Pacific is the most successful – in the sense of its spread – signpost of Japanese strategic thinking. Over the past decade, Japan’s diplomacy has had to adjust to the new reality of balance of power, and it is crucial for Japan that the Indo-Pacific region continues to grow and increase economic inter-dependence, based on common rules and norms. In essence, FOIP, both as strategy and as vision, reflects Japan’s hope for order.

Going forward, Japan should deepen discussions with Washington and Canberra on what FOIP means, being open and candid about the desired regional order and how China sits in that order. They must also agree on a division of labor in assisting Indo-Pacific nations to build their capacity in maritime domains and to enhance good governance toward more liberal, democratic, and responsive systems that can balance alternative order-building efforts. Finally, Japan must continue to promote regional integration with ASEAN in the driving seat, and urge the United States to conduct a speedy return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These steps, combined with an overall effort to socialize China into good norms and practices, will secure the future for all.

Dr. Ryo Sahashi is an associate professor of International Politics at the University of Tokyo.


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