Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy – Scrutinizing its Dynamism and Relevance for International Security

By Viswapramod C Apr18,2023 #China #Japan #QUAD #USA
  • In the contemporary situation, it is desirable to promote Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and to stop policies that may support authoritarianism.
  • Through the values of diplomacy and strategy, Japan is keen to develop key strategic alliances beyond the West and offer a level playing field to its strategic partners in south-east Asia, especially India.
  • Although this task is extremely challenging, containing China and pushing it towards the frameworks of the “rules-based international order” must be taken up by the responsible powers of the world.

Japan has been an important player in the Indo-Pacific region both as a major economic power and as a principal agent of the Western alliance. Being a key strategic ally, both to the EU (European Union) and the USA, Japan has made a significant geopolitical imprint in playing its national security cards quite astutely. The recent national security strategy of Japan has also categorically stated the security concerns arising out of the Indian Ocean region by stressing on protection and safeguarding of the freedom of navigation in the region by laying emphasis on the geostrategic locations of South Asia and South East Asia. Japan’s core liberal values of international freedom and the democratic credentials of its global partners play a vital role in the success of its Indo-Pacific strategy.

The most important component of the Japanese strategy is to develop a systematic and coherent “Values Diplomacy” that includes negotiations based on international rules-based orders, specifically with its democratic partners. Values diplomacy is also a tool that is being used by Japan against China, to remind and point out its communist regime, about the numerous human rights violations internally, its international border flare-ups and the gross violations it is committing in the south china sea.  Over the last few decades, Japan’s strategic views have undergone major structural changes from just being a post world War 2 pacifist nation-state to a national security state. It is not just because of the rise of a hegemonic China and a rouge North Korea, it also happens to be a result of the unreliability of the US security umbrella, which is mired in its own military-industrial complex and its vested interests.

The liberal values of Japan made it take more proactive diplomatic initiatives after the end of the cold war. It did several trials and errors of value diplomacy and has shifted to an incremental and pluralistic approach over time. Japan’s foreign policy remained low-key during the cold war and in the first decade of the post cold War era. However, it was forced to upgrade due to the change in the international power structure in the 2000s. With the relative decline of the US power and the rise of China, the unipolar characteristic of the post cold War international order was weakened in East Asia. Japan was surpassed by China in terms of both military expenditure and GDP in 2007 and 2010 respectively and this power shift in the region prompted Japan to seek ways to differentiate its own diplomacy from that of China, in order to maintain its external influence. It was in this process that values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law were brought to the forefront of Japanese diplomacy as universal values in mid-2000 whereas Japan established strategic mutual relations with China in October 2006 due to the importance of maintaining good relations with the country, values diplomacy was placed at the core of the diplomatic initiatives starting in November of that year, the awareness about the necessity of proactive diplomacy to support the liberal international order was behind this move as well. This approach was expressed as a commitment to support the stability and prosperity of the countries that share these values to create an “arc of freedom and prosperity”.

In the wider Asian region enjoying strengthened ties with other democracies such as the USA, India and Australia, and then the former Foreign minister Taro Aso, positioned this values diplomacy as the fourth pillar of Japanese diplomacy. However, this initiative was perceived to represent a containment strategy creating an arc surrounding China and suspicions were raised by China. Criticisms arose domestically and even from the USA, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warning that this initiative could send an unintended signal to China. The initiative was a bit premature diplomatically and thus disappeared from the diplomatic scene, after the administrations of Abe in 2006-07 and also in 2008-09.

When values diplomacy returned to the forefront of Japanese diplomacy with the inauguration of the second Abe administration in December 2012, Abe asserted that values diplomacy is strategic diplomacy. In the national security strategy of 2013, one of the objectives of Japan’s diplomacy was to improve the global security environment and build a peaceful, stable and prosperous international community by strengthening the international order based on universal values and rules and by playing a leading role in the settlement of the disputes through consistent diplomatic efforts and further personal. For this purpose, the strategy aims to strengthen cooperation with countries that share international values and to support democracies in developing countries with ODA.    

A Geo-economic Backgrounder to Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

In 2017, Japan launched the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” or FOIP initiative based on Abe’s keynote speech at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, held in Kenya in 2016. FOIP is often misunderstood as a US conception, but it’s totally a different strategy, devised by the Japanese conception and understanding of the world.  While the terms “free” and “open” are closely related to democracy, Japan underscores the values of rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade, rather than democracy per se. And in the ODA (Official Development Assistance) provisions within the FOIP scheme, the country emphasizes openness, transparency, economic efficiency and financial health of the target countries. It focuses on the norms of good governance instead of democracy itself and thus it is a restrained approach to the promotion of liberal values, but it is a slightly more proactive approach than mere assistance for effective governance. In doing so, Japan intends to avoid giving the impression that FOIP is a containment strategy against China. In a sense, this message is directed to south-east Asian countries more than to China itself.

Having strong economic ties with both China and Japan, South East Asian countries hope to maintain good relations with both regional giants. When Japan was emphasizing democracy and human rights, these countries felt that they were forced to choose between Japan and China. In order to not lose the South East Asian counties to China, Japan intentionally weakened its emphasis on democracy. Thus FOIP   is Japan’s reassurance policy, especially toward Southeast Asian Countries. However, compared to the rhetorical emphasis on liberal values, Japan’s approach is weak in content. Its values-oriented diplomacy could crumble without substance and Japanese policymakers should do more to ensure that the mismatch between rhetoric and action does not end up undermining Japan’s diplomatic efforts.

Quest for a liberal order and a “Values Diplomacy”

First and foremost, Japan’s emphasis on stability could reinforce the status quo in the recipient countries with possible unintentional results, by tracing authoritarian governments and violating liberal values. Japan’s stability-focused and state-focused approach should be balanced with a more proactive approach to promote freedom. To this end, Japan’s grant assistance for grassroots projects, which is the program that supports Japanese local and civil society organizations should be broadened to include organizations in areas where areas with pressing political issues. This will help promote greater transparency of governance which is one of the targets of the FOIP strategy.

Second, there is still an outdated belief in the modernization theory among Japanese policymakers. Arguing that economic development brings democratization. Although there is credible evidence that economic development has been witnessed both in the fascist and Nazi regimes of Italy and Germany respectively and in Communist China subsequently, the belief that democracy and development go hand in hand is a view that is firmly held by political theorists over several decades. The theory made the acceptance of liberal values and the lack of promotion of such values to other countries seem compatible. This trend increased because of the failure of the democratic states in the second wave of democratization in the post world War two, Pakistan and Egypt being the premier examples.

In fact, one needs to note that the promotion of the archetypal Western liberal values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law has not succeeded in most parts of the third world, where authoritarian regimes have been both popular as well as dominating at the same time, despite their abysmal human rights record and outburst of the refugee crisis over several decades. The expansion of democracy in the third wave of democratization from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s seemed to prove that the human rights situation would improve sooner or later without the interference of other countries. However, the situation over the past 15 years has shown that the paradigm has completely reversed.

At the outset of the Biden administration, the USA sought to stop using the FOIP concept. It considered the concept to have been developed by the Trump administration and wanted to differentiate itself from the Trump administration. In response, Japanese officials explained that FOIP is a concept that was developed by Japan and persuaded them not to abandon it as they believed that discontinuing the use of the FOIP concept would risk sending a false signal that the United States would stop supporting the liberal international order. The Japanese government succeeded in this persuasion and FOIP is still used today. Despite the entire US establishment levelling immense pressure on Japan, its coherent vision of FOIP happens to be its key strategic instrument to deal with the challenging issues arising out of the Indo-Pacific. This bold move of Japan indicates that despite the ideological tussle in world politics, a policy of continuity and consistency is vital for obtaining key national security goals. It is important for us to understand here that through the values of diplomacy and strategy, Japan is keen to develop key strategic alliances beyond the West and offer a level playing field to its strategic partners in south-east Asia, especially India.

In the contemporary situation, it is desirable to promote FOIP and to stop policies that may support authoritarianism. Above all, it will be important for the international community to make China a responsible power in the future. Although this task is extremely challenging, containing China and pushing it towards the frameworks of the “rules-based international order” must be taken up by the responsible powers of the world. Otherwise, a state of arbitrariness and anarchy will become the norm of the world, leading the world towards a normalized disorder.

(The author has an MA in International Relations. Opinions expressed are the author’s own)

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