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Japan’s Changing Vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific
By J. Berkshire Miller

The Indo-Pacific concept has been gaining more currency among actors in the region, with the US declaring its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy alongside other regional approaches by India and Australia. But leading this charge has been Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has focused intense diplomatic efforts on the importance of the Indo-Pacific region — which Tokyo sees as ranging from East Africa to western North America.1 For Tokyo, this vast swath of the world constitutes its Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision. The goal is to promote sustainable infrastructure, protect and uphold free sea lines of communication and improve connectivity.2


The Indo-Pacific faces a host of shared security challenges, from maritime piracy and crime to heated territorial disputes and a pressing need to enhance regional capacity and readiness for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. In the vast maritime space of the region, commerce and security are guaranteed through freedom of navigation and secure sea lines of communication. These areas are crucial for Japan. Similarly, the maritime passage that connects the Indian and Pacific oceans is a highway for global commerce and trade, providing a critical link for supply chains from East Africa and the Middle East to the Far East. The Indo-Pacific supply-chain is blanketed with key ports and rapidly growing infrastructure aimed at enhancing its connectivity.


Challenge and Possibility


There is great economic opportunity in the region, with large economies and diverse, fast-paced growth in many middle-sized economies. That said, alongside this economic growth is a large demand for infrastructure development — some estimate the need for more than US$4 trillion in the coming years. To fill this void, several regional powers have the ability to work with states in the region to create a sustainable way forward based on fair-lending, transparent institutions and long-term growth. This is an area that Tokyo is willing and able to push forward on.


Yet alongside these economic opportunities are a number of key challenges to the rules and order that have underpinned security and prosperity for the littoral states. In the South China Sea, Beijing continues to practice “salami-slicing” tactics aimed at ensuring its de facto control of much of the key waterways through extensive land reclamation, the deployment of military equipment and the diplomatic division of states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Meanwhile, Beijing also continues to raise regional concerns through its constant incursions into the waters and airspace surrounding Japan’s Senkaku islands, also claimed by China and referred to as the Diaoyu, in the East China Sea.


These concerns in the maritime realm are not limited to the East and South China Seas. In the Indian Ocean region, there has been a build-up of Chinese infrastructure in critical areas such as deep-sea ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. These moves have acutely informed policy-makers in India, who are wary of China’s long-term geopolitical motivations. Indeed, regional geopolitics is shaping strategic shifts in thinking in countries like Japan, Australia, India and the US, all of whom are concerned about China’s push outside its borders through the Belt and Road Initiative, the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and other initiatives.


It is within this geostrategic landscape that Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy has arisen. Tokyo’s prioritization of FOIP as its key foreign policy doctrine in the region begs several questions. First, what is the FOIP approach for Japan and how is it interlinked with the strategies and approaches of other regional partners, such as the US, Australia and India? Is FOIP predominantly a geopolitical strategy aimed at hemming in, through more formalized co-operation with the US and other regional partners, China’s regional assertiveness? Or is FOIP more complex and multilayered? There are other important questions also, but these core areas need contextual answers before FOIP can be assessed at this early stage. This essay will look at these areas and also the importance of the Abe administration’s focus on the Indo-Pacific.


Indo-Pacific as a Geopolitical Concept — the Historical and Modern Context


The concept of the Indo-Pacific — in both economic and security terms — is gaining support in Japan, as evidenced by Tokyo’s push to rapidly step up its engagement with key regional partners. Abe’s outreach to India, Australia and countries in ASEAN are all part of this strategy. All of these countries, while needing somewhat positive ties with China, have been wary of China’s regional assertiveness. Indeed, since taking office, Abe has visited all ten ASEAN member countries, including traditional allies of Beijing such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Abe also toured South Asian states on India’s periphery, including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.


But the focal point in Japan on the Indo-Pacific, as opposed to the more traditional Asia-Pacific, is not new. The history of Abe’s connection to this idea has helped Tokyo place a strong emphasis on the importance of Japan-India ties. Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have long shared a warm relationship, dating back to the days of Abe’s first tenure as prime minister in 2006-2007, where he engaged with Modi, who was then chief minister of Gujarat state. In 2007, Abe spoke of a “confluence of the two seas” during his speech to the Indian Parliament. He stressed that this necessitated an alignment between Japan and India: “The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A ‘broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form. 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.”3


Nearly a decade later, the two have been reunited as the leaders of two of Asia’s largest and most prosperous democracies. Abe sees a partnership with Delhi as both a natural hedge against Beijing and a complementary hedge against potential risks from Washington’s retrenchment or gradual drawdown in East Asia. (He may have additional aims in search of a more autonomous Asian policy and as a supporter in the quest for a different view of history in Asia from Washington’s. After all, the Indian judge whose home Abe visited as prime minister voted against the Tokyo Tribunal findings.) As Abe noted in the publication Project Syndicate just before his election in December 2012: “I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific. I am prepared to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond.”4 This sentiment built on Abe’s intentions during his first administration, when Foreign Minister Taro Aso called for an “arc of freedom and prosperity” that transcended the Pacific Ocean and connected Japan to India and South Asia.5


Japanese academic Satoru Nagao has also illustrated the growth of this relationship, which has pushed India strategically closer not only to Japan, but also to Australia and the US: “India faces a dilemma that differentiates its strategic concerns from those of the US, Japan and Australia: India alone among the four countries shares a land border with China. That puts India in a bind as it considers the prospect of military co-operation. Simply put, the more India co-operates with the US, Japan and Australia, the more it can improve its ability to counter China in the Indo-China border area. However, the more that the countries co-operate, the more it will have an undesirable effect on India: China will respond by deploying an increasingly greater number of forces to the Chinese side of the India-China border.”6


FOIP: From ‘Strategy’ to ‘Vision’


It is tempting to view Japan’s FOIP approach as informed principally by concerns about containing China’s growing regional assertiveness, most particularly in the maritime domain, but also through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and massive construction projects in several littoral states in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. But FOIP for Japan has been an evolving approach. As an example, Tokyo has altered its strategic messaging on it. Up until 2018, FOIP had been discussed in official documents as a strategy, but it has now been framed as a vision. The nuance is important. Essentially, policy-makers in Tokyo viewed the original presentation of FOIP in strategic terms as burdensome, due to the fact that many regional partners — especially states in Southeast Asia — remain wary of any approach that may be viewed as containment of Beijing. Therefore, the word “vision” has been adopted as a more euphemistic and practical term that allows easier buy-in from states potentially wavering in their desire to endorse Japan’s FOIP.


Another key factor in the evolution of FOIP is Japan’s active “opening of the tent” as it promotes the vision. Tokyo has been promoting it as inclusive and not aimed at any one state — clearly with a message to China that, believable or not, FOIP should not be seen in adversarial terms. In support of this opening, Japan has extended its traditional focus beyond the US, Australia and India (who are members of a tepidly reborn quadrilateral dialogue that was dormant for 10 years) and has pushed for greater involvement in the Indo-Pacific from states in Europe, such as the United Kingdom and France. Tokyo has also stressed the importance of this to other G-7 partners, such as Canada, that share similar norms, values and approaches to the rule of law.


The final key factor to understanding how FOIP is evolving is the thematic focus. Originally, it was seen as basically a security policy aimed at constraining China. While the security components — such as Japan’s focus on the rule of law and freedom of navigation — remain, the vision is about much more than regional security or territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. FOIP is also premised on improving physical connectivity in the region through the provision of quality infrastructure such as ports, railways, roads and energy supplies. Japan is also focused on pushing for better people-to-people connectivity, through educational exchanges and other tools; and institutional connectivity, through setting higher thresholds on economic rules and regulations — as evidenced by the passing into force last year of the landmark Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the reworked TPP agreement minus the United States, which withdrew under Trump.


Understanding these important elements of FOIP’s evolution are critical to see the vision as more than a blunt security object aimed at China. The reality is that FOIP is a shared approach — and one that is likely to gain more support in the coming years — to protect and uphold rules and values in a region that continues to be the engine of economic growth in the world, but that is also beset with a host of increasing security challenges.



1 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Towards Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” January 2019.

2 Ibid.

3 Abe Shinzo, “Confluence of the Two Seas: Speech to the Parliament of India,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, August 2007, www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html

4 Abe Shinzo, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” Project Syndicate, December 2012, www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/a-strategic-alliance-for-japan-and-india-by-shinzo-abe?barrier=true

5 Taro Aso, “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity: Japan’s Expanding Diplomatic Horizons,” Japan Institute of International Affairs (speech), Nov. 30, 2006, www.mofa.go.jp/announce/fm/aso/speech0611.html

6 Satoru Nagao, “Relations between the U.S., Japan, and Australia Present a Dilemma for India,” Hudson Institute, November 2018, www.hudson.org/research/14709-relations-between-the-u-s-japan-and-australia-present-a-dilemma-for-india

Back to Issue
    While the notion of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ has grabbed headlines as the new Asia strategy of US President Donald Trump’s administration, the reality is that the idea has been percolating in the region for years, and Japan has played a leading role in articulating its implications and opportunities. J. Berkshire Miller examines the strategy and vision of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and how they have evolved over time.
    Published: March 2019 (Vol.14 No.1)
    About the author

    J. Berkshire Miller is a senior fellow at the Asian Forum Japan (AFJ). He is also a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs and a Distinguished fellow the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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