Japan: No Indo-Pacific Order Without International Order 

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Japan: No Indo-Pacific Order Without International Order 

Japan smartly places Indo-Pacific order under the aegis of international order, with a much more proactive and coordinative role for itself. 

Japan: No Indo-Pacific Order Without International Order 

Kishida Fumio, Prime Minister of Japan, addresses the Security Council meeting on upholding the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter through effective multilateralism: maintenance of peace and security of Ukraine, Sep. 20, 2023.

Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elías

In April, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, in his address to the joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, made the case for a stronger “global partnership” with the United States as part of a commitment to preserve “indispensable” U.S. leadership. 

Two things stood out: One of the mainstays was the imperative for realizing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), which, as Kishida said, could soon face “harsher realities.” Second, highlighting the “loneliness and exhaustion” of the United States as the sole “country that has upheld the international order almost singlehandedly,” Kishida staked a claim toward co-sustaining a coalescing Indo-Pacific order and international order. 

Such a perspective about the alliance’s present and future gives impetus to the argument that Japan’s FOIP vision, which was first crafted by Japan’s former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo – widely seen as a China hawk – in 2007, will now evolve to include a deepening of Japan’s role in and beyond the region’s security and economic order. Indeed, FOIP under Kishida conceptually and strategically increasingly falls under the aegis of the Free and Open International Order (FOIO) to stress the interconnectedness of the two and adherence to the rule of law in the international order. Japan no longer wants to trail but co-lead.

But how would this work? 

What a Difference an ‘O’ Instead of a ‘P’ Makes

In 2016, Abe announced Japan’s Indo-Pacific vision in terms of both geoeconomic and geopolitical security (“stability” and “prosperity”) that encompasses “dynamism” across the two biggest continents (Asia and Africa) and oceans (Indian and Pacific). This dynamism covered avenues from multilateral trade agreements for curbing protectionism to maritime security with “like-minded” partners. Notably, it also led to a greater, gradual awakening to the region’s importance as an economic and political fulcrum among external stakeholders and within the area, even as China was still a threat factor, which was still to be completely processed. The latter factor has been responsible for the European Union (EU) taking five years and South Korea six years to embrace the Indo-Pacific construct.

Five years later, soon after Kishida’s ascent to power and in the wake of the highly divisive Ukraine war, Japan’s strategic aims and international profile have both been boosted. This is largely thanks to the head start provided by a clear articulation of the Indo-Pacific strategy earlier than most states, but also due to Japan’s capitalization of the increasingly unstable global security landscape and greater violations of international order. The authoritarian partner-states of China, North Korea, and Russia – all nuclear-powered regimes that threaten Japan’s territories and interests – are central to this global predicament. Naturally, Japan has understood the importance of increasing its global stakes and sharing responsibility with the United States, as evident in Japan taking the lead after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially as the G-7 host in 2023.

In this context, as argued by Kei Hakata, Teruaki Aizawa, and Brendon J. Cannon, Japan’s signaling push from upholding a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” to a “Free and Open International Order ” is not a new event, but “Japan’s answer to the Zeitenwende” and a culmination of Japan’s diplomatic thought process dating back to the Cold War period. As a relevant aside, Zeitenwende was used by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, translated as “an epochal tectonic shift,” to describe the post-February 2022 geopolitical transition and to raise the question about the roles of European actors in the new multipolar future. 

Such a question is even more imperative for Japan, which is in the thick of (geo)political jostling. Notably, according to Abe, in reportedly the last text he wrote before his assassination in 2022, the very making of the FOIP construct was a “major turning point in global security policy,” with Japan looking to become a bigger player by increasing its defense and diplomatic-strategic capabilities. 

Since 2022, Kishida has increasingly mentioned the slightly different but similar term “FOIO,” as noted above, to stress the rule of law in the international order. FOIO is now everywhere. When Kishida met his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte during the G-20 meeting in New Delhi in September 2023, he stressed FOIO. When Kamikawa Yoko, Japan’s foreign minister, visited Finland and Sweden in January this year, she also emphasized FOIO. Japan’s national security strategy, released in December 2022, also references FOIO. 

Kei Hakata argued that the FOIO is a conception, beyond the realm of Indo-Pacific, to touch the sphere of the “Global South.” As a result, FOIO appears to become more mainstream in Japanese whitepapers and official statements. This shows that Japan sees the current challenge to sustain order within and beyond the Indo-Pacific region as a question of international law not being upheld. Countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity have been violated, as shown in the Ukraine example. Japan guards against such challenges and believes this should not be replicated in Asia. 

No Order Without Strengthening in the Security Domain

So, while Japan’s “broader Asia” solidarity was Abe’s clarion call, the “multilateral, multilayered” network vision has assumed more urgent and broader significance to foster order in the new era. The infrastructure connectivity and economic growth-oriented goals of the Japanese vision have been supplanted by a security-centered approach, of which both financial and developmental cooperation is undoubtedly an aspect, albeit not the focal point. 

This is evidenced by Japan’s move to increase its defense budget, enhanced participation in joint exercises, co-development, easing transfer rules for defense equipment, and signing reciprocal access agreements with various partners. Such recent measures have prompted most observers to highlight them as Japan’s move away from its pacifist constitution, even as high-level government officials, including Kishida, repeatedly deny such motives. 

However, this is not an abrupt phenomenon. For example, during 2013-2014, Abe’s Cabinet approved a new national security strategy, increased the defense budget, and eased Japan’s self-imposed arms export ban with an eye on China. In this context, Kishida has only taken what some have called Abe’s “flirtations with security reform” several steps forward in diplomacy and national security interests.

No Order Without Order Backers 

Undisputedly, the United States is Japan’s closest ally in its quest to uphold FOIO. However, Japan also prioritizes bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral cooperation with ascendant partner states like Australia and India. In recent times, ties with historically hostile neighbor South Korea, which faces a similar security predicament, especially from the Kim Jong Un regime, have also been on the mend, but history will always cast a shadow. 

Notably, on the forefront of Japan’s agenda are also economic and security (primarily maritime) cooperation with the inclusive and confrontation-averse blocs of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the EU, which are overdependent on China for trade; trilateral security cooperation with ASEAN members like the Philippines, which is openly confronting China’s bellicose and hybrid tactics on the South China Sea; and “nongovernmental” cooperation with “crucial” partner Taiwan, where the lack of a diplomatic relationship is not preventing greater collaboration for fear of China’s reunification aims spilling over to create a significant Japanese contingency. 

Nonetheless, besides securing its territories in East Asia, it is in neighboring Southeast and South Asia – and in that order – that Japan is prioritizing to expand its influence. In Southeast Asia, Japan has pursued a “nuanced approach,” in line with its support for the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. This has resulted in it being recognized as one of the most trusted partners. Japan’s multiple connectivity projects and development assistance are looking to counter China in a region where China still enjoys influence despite historical disputes and “divergence of interests.” 

Japan’s most critical strategic ties in South Asia are with India, another middle power with global ambitions centered on multipolarity. Not only are the two sides strengthening relations bilaterally and minilaterally, but they are also looking to deepen (sub)regional partnerships through connectivity measures, especially in the Bay of Bengal, a vital part of the Indian Ocean region where China is looking to consolidate its footprint. This will facilitate regional integration and allow Japan maritime and market access to a strategically important region.

However, one of Japan’s most crucial and “mature” partnerships is with Australia – the so-called quasi-alliance – and the threat from China has only brought them closer. Their security cooperation has also reached new heights with a reciprocal access agreement and another on undersea warfare research. This is also important as the two are treaty allies of the United States and have a common interest in maintaining the FOIO while sharing responsibilities. Yet they must stress more on multilateral objectives, whether economic or developmental, especially in the Pacific Island states, to counter China’s clout. Japan has already started working with Australia and the U.S. in this direction.

Burgeoning Tilt to Minilaterals to Co-foster Order

Further, Russia’s war in Eastern Europe, strengthening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO; Japan is its Indo-Pacific partner) with the inclusion of historically militarily non-aligned Sweden and Finland, the Hamas-Israel war in the Middle East with its wider ramifications, the United States’ leadership crisis, both at home and abroad; and China’s growing influence in the Global South, particularly in West Asia, Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America have also necessitated Japan’s global ambitions and outreach to foster FOIO. 

This has also meant that Japan has had to lean into the rising trend of minilateralism – a voluntary but often viable mechanism to tackle global challenges – amid a sense of impending “implosion” of the international order. At the same time, Japan has not abandoned ongoing efforts to reinvigorate multilateralism, such as Japan’s leadership efforts in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The CPTPP has economic-strategic significance for developing the economic security architecture, including standard setting, and is vital for the FOIP.

Against this scenario, one of the most relevant forums is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. The Quad has been vital in helping coalesce the partners’ relationships with each other and creating a fertile landscape for an emerging security architecture. 

Besides, the Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral has become an important beacon of hope for boosting security in East Asia amid the China-North Korea dual threat and improving the two Asian partners’ historically tense ties. In Southeast Asia, similar gains against a belligerent China have been made by the “first-of-its-kind” joint meeting of the Japan-Philippines-U.S. trilateral. Then, there are official reports about Japan potentially cooperating with the AUKUS defense pact partners (Australia-U.K.-U.S.) on advanced defense technologies.

Yet there is merit in the argument that Japan must expand its “hard-security,” China-centered minilateral approach to include more elements in the developmental and good governance realms relevant to the Global South for a more constructive global engagement.

Nonetheless, Japan’s rhetoric and actions in maintaining an international law-based international order through FOIO – and not just an Indo-Pacific regional order through FOIP – graze the world of realpolitik, with Japan as a proactive coordinator among those receptive to sustaining order in the Indo-Pacific and internationally. The FOIO concept and corresponding proactive strategy to strengthen across the security dimension and a burgeoning tilt towards minilaterals are indicative of how Japan interprets, prioritizes, and pursues sustaining order in the Indo-Pacific. 

This work is part of a Stiftung Mercator-funded project titled “Order in the Indo-Pacific: Gauging the Region’s Perspectives on EU Strategies and Constructive Involvement.” The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect those of Stiftung Mercator or the authors’ respective institutes.