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RIP FOIP? Examining Japan’s New Foreign Policy Mantra

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RIP FOIP? Examining Japan’s New Foreign Policy Mantra

What to make of Prime Minister Kishida’s repeated calls for a “free and open international order based on the rule of law”?

RIP FOIP? Examining Japan’s New Foreign Policy Mantra

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio departs for New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly session, Sep. 18, 2023.

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio gave a policy speech in the 212th session of Japan’s Diet on October 23. The speech stirred interest among many analysts, who speculated that Kishida would dissolve the Diet to call for a snap general election. However, that scenario fizzled amid declining approval ratings. There was no surprise in bold tax cuts, either.

However, a like-minded fellow scholar drew my attention to the foreign policy portion of Kishida’s speech. Notably, it contained no mention of the “free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP),” previously a staple of Japan’s foreign policy pronouncements. The Indo-Pacific appeared once in the speech and only as “a growth center.” Instead, Japan’s premier twice mentioned a “free and open international order based on the rule of law.” 

Kishida’s speech begs the question of what was behind the FOIP’s absence. Did it symbolize the FOIP’s conceptual evolution to an updated formula? Was this simply an omission, because FOIP was too evident in the minds of Japanese policymakers? Did Kishida seek to differentiate himself from Abe in his foreign policy approach? 

Another event provided a partial answer to these questions. 

Two days later, Kishida met Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, who was on a visit to Japan. In line with Kishida’s Diet speech, both leaders reiterated “their commitment… to uphold and strengthen the free and open international order based on the rule of law, with the U.N. Charter at its core.” Furthermore, they affirmed “the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific to both countries, which are maritime states.” According to Kishida and Frederiksen, a “free and open Indo-Pacific is inclusive, prosperous, secure, based on the rule of law, and protects shared principles including sovereignty, territorial integrity, peaceful resolution of disputes, as well as freedom and fundamental human rights.”

Although presumably prepared long before the Diet session, this statement proved that FOIP is alive and well. It also illustrated that the important principles of international conduct – most notably the rule of law – complemented the term FOIP. 

How should we understand the relationship between FOIP and this less famous and newer terminology, which is difficult to abbreviate?

Culmination of Japan’s Diplomatic and Philosophical Efforts

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year and the G-7’s Hiroshima summit meeting this year, “a free and open international order based on the rule of law” has been a preferred term for Kishida’s administration. When Kishida launched Japan’s new Indo-Pacific plan in New Delhi in March, he clearly expressed FOIP’s validity but did not fail to add reference to “a free and open international order based on the rule of law,” which he said “Japan and India have a great responsibility for maintaining and strengthening.”

Indeed, Kishida’s predecessors, Prime Ministers Abe Shinzo and Suga Yoshihide, had already used terms such as “rule of law” and “a free and open international order.” The Abe administration also began referring to their combined version around 2017. Passed down to Suga and then to Kishida, the verbose expression of “free and open international order based on the rule of law” epitomizes Japan’s diplomatic and philosophical efforts.

In retrospect, Abe’s main foreign policy goal was to see a “free and open international order based on the rule of law” prosper. Abe himself promoted values-based diplomacy starting in his first term in office; during his second tenure, he led a so-called “panoramic diplomacy” to cover the globe. Importantly, the “rule of law” tenet always characterized Abe’s foreign policy approach. 

Shortly after taking office in December 2012, he was scheduled to deliver a speech titled “The Bounty of the Open Seas: Five New Principles for Japanese Diplomacy” in January 2013 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Whereas Abe’s speech was canceled due to a hostage crisis, the speech script remains posted online. According to that document, Abe was about to articulate Japan’s national interest “in keeping Asia’s seas unequivocally open, free, and peaceful – in maintaining them as the commons… where the rule of law is fully realized” (emphasis added).

Three years later in August 2016, Abe officially launched FOIP at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Nairobi, Kenya. Since then, the term “Indo-Pacific” has entered Tokyo’s diplomatic parlance, becoming a quasi-pseudonym for China policy. Although valuable in many regards, this term’s geographical constraints prevent it from reaching a large part of the world. For instance, the Indo-Pacific concept is not particularly helpful for interacting with inland and non-Indo-Pacific states and regions in Eurasia, Africa, and South America.

The challenges that authoritarian regimes bring to the rules-based international order are global. Confining the scope of Japan’s normative diplomacy to the Indo-Pacific region would negatively limit its effect. Abe himself carried out panoramic diplomacy to embrace the world in Japan’s vision. By emphasizing the “free and open international order based on the rule of law,” Kishida is right in going beyond the bounded Indo-Pacific geography. It should be his panoramic approach.

While the Indo-Pacific faded, the phrase “free and open” remained in Kishida’s Diet speech. This qualifier is more substantial than the bounded geography because it implies critical values of international law, a cause that Japan has continuously advocated. In a closed conversation, the late Abe once confessed to me the importance of the term “free and open,” which no other adjective could describe. 

Tokyo is keen on this issue. For example, when U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s team wanted to change FOIP to a “secure and prosperous” Indo-Pacific, the Japanese government promptly lobbied to keep it “free and open.” In Kishida’s discourse at the Diet, freedom and openness remained important tenets guiding the international order. This was a reasonable choice of words.

Crafting and Delivering an Appropriate Diplomatic Message 

However, the fact that FOIP sees to have faded from Kishida’s discourse raises some concerns. FOIP has become an invaluable diplomatic asset for Tokyo and its democratic partners, such as Washington, Canberra, and New Delhi. Not using this acclaimed term would be a strategic error. Without this term, it would be difficult to form a common understanding within the Quad coalition. In addition, the term “Indo-Pacific” has become a synonym for a grand strategy to preserve a rules-based international order from a revisionist China. Accordingly, it makes sense to employ this term not only to pinpoint the region of gravity but also to showcase a sense of strategic awareness.

It also must be asked whether “a free and open international order based on the rule of law” is appealing as a slogan. This phrase may be too wordy to function as such; it may not be inspiring as a catchphrase. If by chance Kishida and other Japanese policymakers want to replace FOIP, a simpler “free and open international order (FOIO)” would be more impactful from a marketing viewpoint. Of course, this term may reasonably increase in relevance if accompanied by related terms. 

Kishida should then mention FOIP as a trademark, emphasize the rule of law as a principle, and refer to the Indo-Pacific as a geostrategic agenda. That said, burying what has become a common asset will be self-destructive.

Kishida’s policy speech provided an opportunity to reflect on how appropriate diplomatic messages can be crafted and delivered. The Japan-Denmark joint statement gave a sensible response to this question, demonstrating how an Indo-Pacific maritime state can form a shared understanding with its non-Indo-Pacific counterpart in pursuit of a common goal to keep this world free and open.

The author would like to thank Teruaki Aizawa, Captain JMSDF (Ret.) and associate professor at Japan’s National Defense Academy, for pointing out the policy speech issue. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of Mr. Aizawa or the institution he belongs to.