GFJ Commentary

October 1, 2022 

Reflections on Japan's vision

of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”

Distinguished Research Fellow, The Japan Forum on International Relations
Governor and Executive Secretary, The Global Forum of Japan

New Dynamics of the Indo-Pacific

 With the dawn of the 21st century, the relative importance of the geographical element of Japanese diplomacy is shifting from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific. The emergence of China’s political, economic, and military power has become the most important event of the 21st century, and the global political, economic, and military "playing field" has shifted from the Asia-Pacific to encompass the Indo-Pacific. The region has now become a large market, accounting for half of the world's population and approximately 60% of the gross domestic product. Hence, expanding Japan's political and economic leadership is urgent.

 In this context, the Indo-Pacific has become one of the most important strategic visions in Japan's foreign policy strategy today. The strategic concept was first proposed in August 2007 by the then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his first term in office, under the title "Confluence of the Two Seas." In his speech, Abe highlighted the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific from an early stage, saying, "The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and prosperity. (...) Our two countries have the ability and the responsibility to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparence."

 Five years and four months later, the "Confluence of the Two Seas" was developed into an English-language paper, "Asia's Democratic Security Diamond," and published on December 27, 2012, shortly after the inauguration of the second Abe administration.

 The paper was initially written before Abe took office as Prime Minister, and it stated that "Peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean are inseparable from peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean." It argues that the four maritime democracies that form a diamond—Japan, the US (Hawai'i), Australia, and India—should work together and cooperate to achieve peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

 According to Abe, the origin of the idea of the Indo-Pacific goes back to Junichiro Koizumi's administration, when he served as the Chief Cabinet Secretary. He said that amidst the difficulties in relations with China and South Korea, he came up with the idea of "diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map" by taking a broader perspective in dealing with both countries and, by extension, the confluence of the "Two Oceans": the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The Birth of the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific"

 In his address delivered at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development in August, Abe called for cooperation with Africa to "foster the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and make it prosperous," and "make the seas that connect the two continents into peaceful seas that are governed by the rule of law." This is where the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) idea was born.

 Abe's statement that his country has nothing to do with force or the threat of force was a sign to the world of Japan's position and will that it will not tolerate 'change of the status quo by force' by some countries, including China.

 According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, FOIP is defined as opening up a new horizon for Japanese diplomacy by integrating the dynamism created by the intersection of the "Two Continents" of Asia and Africa, and the "Two Oceans," the Pacific and Indian Oceans, to further develop the diplomatic visions of a "panoramic perspective of the world map" and "proactive pacifism."

 The following three pillars are set up toward realizing FOIP.

  • i. Promotion and establishment of fundamental principles such as the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and free trade.
  • ii. The pursuit of economic prosperity (connectivity, strengthening of economic partnerships including EPA/FTA, and investment agreements)
  • iii. Ensuring peace and stability (building maritime law enforcement capacity, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, etc.)

 However, in addition to Japan, the notion of the Indo-Pacific has also attracted attention in the US, Australia, and Europe. In June 2019, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) launched the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”.

 In addition, the establishment of frameworks such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in a multilayered manner, with FOIP as one of the axes, cannot be ignored. For example, Quad was initially launched as an administrative-level meeting but had since steadily progressed, with Foreign Ministers' Meetings held in New York and Tokyo and a summit meeting held in 2021.

Kishida's Diplomacy for the Future: Consideration for Both "Competition" and "Coordination"

 There is another notable point regarding FOIP. In terms of relations with China, the FOIP takes into consideration both "competition" and "cooperation" concerning the new value created through the interactions between the "Two Oceans," the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In other words, in the face of various threats in the Indo-Pacific region, under FOIP, Japan aims to make the region "free and open" by first securing an international order based on rules including the rule of law, freedom of navigation, peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of free trade. This is conscious of "competition" with China.

 Meanwhile, Abe himself stated regarding "cooperation," in a joint Japan-China press release on the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China (October 2018), that:

 “From competition to cooperation. Japan-China relations are now moving into a 'new phase.'"

 This statement was clearly made with an eye toward "cooperation" with China.

 Thus, the FOIP includes aspects of both competition and coordination, and Abe's statement suggests that he would rather see China as a "cooperative" partner than a "competitive" partner in the FOIP. There is no doubt that Japan seeks to have China participate in the FOIP as much as possible and cooperate to achieve peace and prosperity in the region.

 In this sense, the value of the FOIP will depend on whether Japan regards China's position in the FOIP as a "competitor" or a collaborator. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has presented new strategies, including "New Capitalism," "Realism Diplomacy for a New Era," and the Kishida Vision for Peace. " How effective would Japan’s diplomacy be in the midst of the chaotic world order? We will keep a close eye on Kishida's diplomacy.