When the 211th Diet was convened earlier this year, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio gave a major policy speech announcing Tokyo’s intention to strengthen its engagement with countries in the so-called Global South. Arguably, diplomacy with the political South has long been Tokyo’s priority. However, as the chair of this year’s Group of Seven (G-7), Japan appears to be gearing up its initiative for valid reasons.
Responding to China’s rise and its revisionist attempts, Japan has been pursuing its Indo-Pacific strategy for some years, and as such, has sought to deepen ties with other “like-minded” countries. As with other Indo-Pacific lynchpin actors, alignment with core partners and coalition building with broader supporters has been at the heart of Tokyo’s endeavors.
However, the varying positions and interests seen among nations across the globe make this “like-mindedness” seem like a myth. For example, Russian aggression against Ukraine highlighted the delicate position of many states that wished to remain neutral. Challenges arise as various countries emerge, individually or collectively, and exhibit their autonomy vis-à-vis old and new great powers.
The “middles,” or the third-party states in the middle of the strategic competition between the United States and China, emerged as the focus of alignment competition. As China under Xi Jinping becomes recklessly assertive, the role of middle players becomes crucial as it affects the outcome of the China-U.S. competition occurring in a fragmented multipolarity. Accordingly, engagement with the political South is expected to be a matter of strategic importance for Tokyo and many other capitals. As this year’s G-7 meetings approach, Japan must now make the most of its diplomatic assets.
Tokyo’s Indo-Pacific Path in Its Diplomatic Panorama
Much of the 2010s witnessed a renaissance in Japan’s foreign policy. Under the late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, the Japanese government engaged in an overarching “panoramic diplomacy.” Officially termed a “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the terrestrial globe” (or other English variations) (chikyūgi wo fukansuru gaikō), this diplomacy aimed to expand Japan’s visibility at a global level. Furthermore, under the banner of the “proactive contribution to peace” (sekkyokuteki heiwa shugi), Japan also sought to normalize its security policy, as embodied by the Peace and Security Legislation of September 2015.
To further realize what can be called the “Abe Doctrine,” Japan proactively conducted an Indo-Pacific strategy, incorporating geostrategic and normative elements into its foreign policy. The “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), launched by then-Prime Minister Abe at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) held in Kenya in August 2016, is probably the apex of Japan’s diplomatic activism, going as far as to impact the United States’ subsequent foreign policy. Another brainchild of Abe, the Quadrilateral cooperation of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S., has also provided Tokyo with an additional diplomatic tool.
What became clear is that for Japan and other Quad states, the term “Indo-Pacific” is a synonym for rules-based, principled regionalism to be realized. The Indo-Pacific narrative epitomizes the aspirations of various states to preserve the peaceful status quo in the face of China’s hegemonic attempts. If the decades-old Asia-Pacific was a geographically bounded region that included China, then the Indo-Pacific stands for conditional regionalism, where China is included only on the condition that it abides by the accepted norms and values of international law.
Under Abe, Japanese foreign policy was undoubtedly infused with geostrategic thinking. As China’s revisionism threatens regional peace, Japan has sought to maintain a rule-based international order by involving the United States and other like-minded partners. In doing so, Tokyo meticulously endeavored to reach out to sympathizing countries. In retrospect and considering Japan’s international outreach, Africa was perhaps the appropriate place for FOIP’s launch, as Abe pointed out in his posthumous memoir.
Japan’s All-directional Foreign Policy
Before the term “Global South” became popular in today’s foreign policy parlance, Japan had conducted omnidirectional diplomacy for many decades. This became accentuated during the late 1970s when Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo launched his “all-directional foreign policy for peace” (zen-hōi heiwa gaikō), in part to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Dubbed the “Fukuda Doctrine,” this approach eventually created trusted partnerships with the members of the Association of the Southeast Asian States (ASEAN), paving the way to an Asia-Pacific regionalism that Japan and Australia eagerly initiated.
Tokyo’s diplomatic activism, sometimes with ample official assistance, has targeted almost all regions of the world, including much of today’s political South — developing and emerging countries in the southern and northern hemispheres. It embraced regions such as the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia and Afghanistan, the Caucasus, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and South America.
For example, Japan has nurtured a multilateral forum with Africa and the United Nations since the early 1990s, represented by the now-triennial TICAD process, which held its 8th plenary gathering in Tunisia in August 2022. Tokyo’s overtures also encompassed Central Asia, with which it launched a “C5+1” framework in 2004. This format has maintained its vitality, as the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as their Japanese counterpart, gathered in Tokyo in December 2022. Interestingly, the TICAD and C5+1 formats inspired the governments of China and the U.S. to develop similar frameworks.
Although increasingly marked by its Indo-Pacific tilt, Japan’s foreign policy has always emphasized a panoramic approach, resulting in lasting tangible assets. What may differentiate Japan from other countries’ similar multi-directional diplomacy is perhaps its strong adherence to the Japan-U.S. alliance and its emphasis on the rules-based order, a testament to the survival strategy that a merchant and maritime state devoid of natural resources and military capabilities must pursue.
Can Kishida Achieve a Panoramic Values-based Diplomacy?
Succeeding the short-lived administration of Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, Kishida has explored Abe’s diplomatic legacy since October 2021. Kishida’s foreign policy was officially named “realism diplomacy for a new era” (shinjidai riarizumu gaikō). Even if the overall orientation has not changed, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought Tokyo even closer to fellow G-7 members. While Abe’s all-encompassing approach included fraternizing with Russia’s Vladimir Putin for territorial negotiations, Kishida departed from this and maintained a values-based approach. The Ukrainian War also helped Kishida implement robust security policies, as reflected in the December 2022 defense-related policies.
The question now is whether Kishida can successfully continue Japan’s diplomatic heritage with its reputation as a “thought leader.” As foreign minister in the Abe administration, now-Prime Minister Kishida understands the intricacies of diplomacy. Thus far, the Kishida administration has sought to enact a values-based foreign policy in tandem with the other Quad and G-7 members as well as other Western states. Propelled by Kishida’s predecessors, the Indo-Pacific idea is firmly grounded in Japan’s foreign and security policies.
Nonetheless, the government must launch further diplomatic initiatives to influence both like-minded and middle players. After Abe, Japan seems to have returned to its classical “follower” role. Dealing with emerging players on the global stage requires more than this. Tokyo still needs compelling narratives and innovative platforms.
For instance, multiplying minilateral platforms, in the image of the Quad or C5+1, is a pragmatic solution. Instead of approaching the political South as a sizable bloc, Tokyo can astutely explore minilateralism with selected countries. As it launched TICAD with African states, Tokyo may also emulate its multilateral fora, focusing on a region or an issue. Using online platforms may also be an efficient, resource-saving method. On this point, Indian diplomacy shows how best to explore avenues and agendas.
Some living in developing and emerging countries are now thriving more than those in industrialized countries. The exactitude of the term “Global South” remains doubtful, yet it is a political narrative that reflects the rising bargaining power of its self-declared members. Tokyo should not be under any illusion that it can easily bring middle players to its side, nor should it be expected to repair global disorder. A fluid, fragmented multipolarity is here to stay.
However, to defend what Japan considers to be its national interests, it needs as many supporters and sympathizers as possible. Kishida can confidently advocate the rules-based international order as a credo that will benefit most sovereign states. “Global South” diplomacy will test Japan’s capacity to showcase creative diplomacy and demonstrate its role as a trusted leader. This year’s G-7 presidency is a valuable opportunity to do this.