In a private conversation, an American security expert gave me his take on why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been able to create and maintain good ties with a transactional and volatile President Donald Trump. Abe’s “proactive” approach contrasts sharply with the passive demeanor of his Japanese predecessors or other world leaders. The American expert stressed that Abe moves quickly, before a transactional president can demand something of Japan.
On November 17, 2016, Abe became the first world leader to meet with president-elect Trump, creating a good chemistry between them just days after Trump’s surprising victory. Neither Abe nor his advisors had predicted that Trump would win. Like most other people, Trump’s victory was a total surprise to the Japanese government. Abe, however, did not adopt a wait-and-see approach to the unpredictable new US leader. Instead, he ordered his staff to prepare a meeting with president-elect Trump as soon as possible.
This was an outgrowth of his determination to maintain a close security alliance with the United States no matter who became president. It is also in line with his proactive approach to Japan’s foreign and security policy, which has brought him many successes thus far. One prominent example of this approach is his Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, a concept advanced by Japan before it made its way into the December 2017 US National Security Strategy, which referred to the “Indo-Pacific” rather than “Asia-Pacific,” and before Secretary of Defense James Mattis renamed the Asia-Pacific Command the Indo-Pacific command in May 2018.
Such common terminology and concepts between Japan and the United States are not simply the products of synchronicity or their leaders’ chemistry. There was considerable bilateral exchange of strategic ideas at both the governmental and track-2 levels, including the Abe administration’s response to and interaction with the Barack Obama administration’s “rebalancing to Asia” initiative.
There are two major driving forces behind Abe’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy: The rise of China and the relative decline of US influence in Asia. This paper will seek to show how Japan’s strategic thinking has been encapsulated into the FOIP strategy during the Abe administration through interaction among both the governmental and non-governmental members of the Japanese and US security policy community.
What Is the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy?
According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), Japan’s first commitment to the FOIP strategy was elucidated in Abe’s speech at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) in Nairobi, Kenya, on August 27, 2016, in which he notes the importance of connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as such values as freedom and the rule of law.
When you cross the seas of Asia and the Indian Ocean and come to Nairobi, you then understand very well that what connects Asia and Africa is the sea lanes. What will give stability and prosperity to the world is none other than the enormous liveliness brought forth through the union of two free and open oceans and two continents. Japan bears the responsibility of fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and making it prosperous. Japan wants to work together with you in Africa in order to make the seas that connect the two continents into peaceful seas that are governed by the rule of law.
This was a safe and diplomatic way of introducing the core rationale for Japan’s FOIP strategy. But it was noteworthy for not including two critical strategic considerations: balancing against the rise of China and hedging against America’s decline as the world’s hegemon. Professor Katsuyuki Yakushiji of Toyo University, who has followed Japan’s foreign and security policy for many years as a journalist at Asahi Shimbun (a leading liberal newspaper in Japan), points out that Abe’s FOIP strategy is clearly meant to counterbalance the rise of China.
The idea for FOIP, he notes, can be found in the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity,” advanced during the first Abe administration in 2006–07, when Taro Aso was foreign minister. Yakushiji believes that the aim of both concepts is the encirclement or containment of China. Cooperating with the United States and other countries, Japan hoped to counter the attempt by revisionist countries to challenge the existing international order and economic system. Foreign Minister Aso identified an “arc” of countries that Japan had assisted in their economic and political development, from Central Asia and the Caucasus to Southeast Asian, and offered to help “these countries find their freedom and democracy, market economies, the rule of law, and respect for human rights expanding bit by bit, growing in the same way that a mere reef over time becomes an island, and later even a mountain range.”
The Arc of Freedom of Prosperity concept also lies behind Abe’s efforts to advance “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map.” In a statement following the prime minister’s visit to Germany, the United Kingdom, Portugal, France, Spain, and Belgium from April 29 to May 7, 2014, MOFA echoed Abe’s policy, noting that Europe is a powerful partner in the “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the word map,” helping to link together the regions of the world, including Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Although Europe lies beyond the Indo-Pacific, the statement is in line with the strategy to encircle or contain China.
Abe expresses his realist, geopolitical thinking toward the rise of China more directly in his essay, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” delivered through the Project Syndicate on December 27, 2012, just one day after Abe began his second tenure as prime minister. In it, he outlines a prototype of the FOIP strategy.
Peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean are inseparable from peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. Japan, as one of the oldest sea-faring democracies in Asia, should play a greater role—alongside Australia, India, and the US—in preserving the common good in both regions.
Abe also argues that the South China Sea was becoming the “Lake of Beijing” and the Chinese government was allowing Chinese law-enforcement vessels to enter Japan’s contiguous and territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. If Japan were to yield to such coercion, the freedom of navigation of regional countries would have been seriously confined.
Abe states that Japan’s priority is “to expand the country’s strategic horizons” and he “envisages 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.” He also vows to direct Japan’s resources to this security diamond.
Abe’s FOIP strategy appears to be based on realist and balance-of-power thinking. It also has a liberal dimension, seeking to secure the global commons in the region. This goes to show that a realist approach and a liberal approach are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a liberal approach has two positive effects that can eventually lead to the attainment of balance of power. First, when Abe stated his realist goals in his “security diamond” essay, his argument was not well received by liberal experts, both inside and outside of Japan, who were afraid of growing security tensions between Japan and China. But a relatively liberal approach to providing common public goods in the region could be accepted even among China engagers.
Second, a liberal approach is an effective tool for countering China’s own “charm offensive,” powered by expanded financial assistance to developing countries across the world from East Asia to African through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It was not a coincidence that Abe’s first FOIP strategy address was held at the TICAD conference, aimed at enhancing Japan’s development assistance to African countries.
Thus, Abe’s FOIP strategy has two elements: a liberal element, such as Japan’s cooperation for the development and stability of Asia and Africa, and a realist element, notably counter-balancing the rise of China by committing additional resources to maintain the international liberal order—at a time when the United States seems eager to lighten its heavy leadership burden in the region.
It is important to look back at how the Abe administration has shaped its national security strategy in the global context before the prime minister’s first FOIP address in 2016.
Abe’s Nationalism and Realism
Since the start of the second Abe cabinet in December 2012, most criticism regarding his foreign policy has centered on what is perceived to be his nationalist ideology and revisionist views. These elements worried not only Chinese and Koreans but also Americans.
For example, Abe remarked on April 23, 2013, in the Diet that there was no universal agreement on what constitutes “aggression.” This refueled concerns that his government intended to retract or modify the Murayama Statement, over which Abe had earlier expressed reservations. In that 1995 statement, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologized for Japanese aggression and colonial rule in East Asia. Abe’s Diet comment set off a firestorm of international criticism, from Western friends and allies as well as from Japan’s East Asian neighbors.
The Abe government initially enjoyed high approval ratings owing the success of its “Abenomics” growth strategy, which sent the stock market and voters’ hopes soaring. Concerns about Abe’s nationalist streak peaked, though, when he visited Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war criminals in World War II are enshrined, in December 25, 2013. Even the US embassy in Japan released a statement expressing its “disappointment” with this decision, while the Chinese and South Korean government harshly criticized Abe as a historical revisionist. Sheila Smith, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has commented that Abe’s “decision to visit Yasukuni will diminish confidence that the Abe cabinet sees the risks in Northeast Asia in the same way as U.S. policymakers. The Yasukuni Shrine visit thus will introduce greater caution in U.S. thinking about the tensions in Northeast Asia.”
Abe has been regarded as an outspoken nationalist. He defends his position in his own 2006 book, “Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan” (updated in 2013 in Japanese under the title, “Towards a New Country”). He points out that his attempt to press North Korea to release and return the Japanese abductees is not act of intolerant nationalism. “Intolerant” may apply to the act of burning another country’s national flag. Abe also defends Jun’ichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine. He criticizes the argument that visiting Yasukuni would revive militarism in Japan by pointing out that Koizumi was simply paying his respects to those who gave their lives for the country. Abe adds that Koizumi had never tried to invade neighbors, to possess long-range missiles capable of attacking other nations, to possess nuclear weapons, to limit individual freedom, or to suspend democratic institutions.
I agree with Abe’s argument that the Japanese liberal media and opposition politicians tend to overreact to every act of nationalism, which most modern liberal democracies would conduct as a matter of course, such as ceremonies to pay respects for the war dead. Abe appears frustrated with the over-politicized tactics of Japanese liberals.
Surprisingly, Abe does not criticize China and South Korea, which often use the “historical perception” card to criticize and check Japan’s nationalism and realistic defense policy. Instead, he advocates that Japan and China should manage disagreements by deepening economic cooperation. He states this applies to relations with South Korea as well, and he sees reasons for optimism, since Japan and South Korea share such common values as democracy and respect for human rights.
For Abe, sharing common democratic values is a very important element for Japan’s partnership building. Not surprisingly, he points out that Japan should cooperate more with India, which is Asia’s largest democracy with pro-Japanese sentiments. Abe tried to remind readers that Japan has had successful strategic dialogues with democratic India, the United States, and Australia, which also share democratic values, during his first administration in 2006. Abe stated that Japan should lead a quadrilateral summit or foreign ministerial meeting to discuss strategy issues. The prototype of the “Quad” dialogue did not last, however, due to the election of pro-Chinese Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
For Abe, the Japanese government’s interpretation of Article 9 banning Japan’s exercise of the right to collective self-defense, was too narrow, since this is a legitimate right conferred to member states in Article 51 of the United Nation Charter. Abe pointed out that, without this right, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces would not be allowed to defend the US forces should they come under military attack on the high seas and would have to withdraw—even if the US military, during the contingency, is helping to rescue Japanese citizens.
Abe’s argument regarding Japan’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the Constitution is shared by many practitioners and realists in the security area, whereas a majority of constitutional scholars and liberals oppose the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Abe has adopted a less ideological and more incremental approach to changing the interpretation of the Article 9, leading to a more realistic national security strategy. His priority agenda could be described as an effort toward becoming a “normal country” that is able to exercise its right to collective self-defense and to participate with equal status as other countries in international security arrangements.
Japan’s Proactive Contribution to Peace in 2013–14
This aspiration to become a “normal county” is not a particularly hawkish or far-right idea among Japanese security experts. Their consensus is that Japan should participate in international efforts to secure and stabilize the regional and global environment more positively. In other words, Japan should provide more resources to maintain international public goods in the security area, both bilaterally with the US and multilaterally with like-minded states.
Abe commissioned a panel of security experts to identify the obstacles for Japan in playing a more positive role in regional and global security during his first tenure as prime minister in 2007. The commission was named the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security, and it was resumed when Abe again became prime minister in 2012 after being suspended during two subsequent LDP cabinets (2007–09) and three DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) cabinets (2009–12).
The panel’ report in May 2014 concluded that “based on this spirit of the principle of international cooperation as expressed in the Constitution, it is natural that participation in international operations is an area in which Japan should engage in most proactively.” It also states that “pacifism in the Constitution should be interpreted from an international perspective and not from a self-centered view and thus is beyond the passive form of pledging not to disturb peace and demands proactive actions to realize peace.”
The report gave a rationale for the National Security Strategy adopted on December 17, 2013, by Cabinet decision. It expressed a resolve to contribute even more proactively in securing the peace, stability, and prosperity of the international community, while achieving its own security and the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. Japan’s Proactive Contributions to Peace, expressed in Japan’s first National Security Strategy in 2013, was deemed not to contradict the pacifism of the Constitution.
The concept of making “proactive cooperation to peace” is not a particularly new idea. Abe’s predecessor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the DPJ, commissioned a report stating, “Japan should further pursue active pacifism in various aspects such as pursuance of reciprocal and cooperative development of the economies and promotion of human security.” Even this commission, named the Frontier Subcommittee, reported, “Japan should strive to expand security cooperation channels by reviewing outdated institutions and practices, including the interpretation on the right of collective self-defense.”
Abe had more political capital than Noda when he returned to power in the December 2012 general election. Many voters, tired of four years of the DPJ’s immature handling of economic and foreign policy, chose the LDP.
In particular, people were critical of Yukio Hatoyama’s mishandling of the US-Japan alliance and generally believed that DPJ administrations had damaged both the Japan-US alliance as well as diplomatic relations with China.
Abe introduced a series of new security policies to make “proactive contributions to peace” in Japan’s own defense, through the Japan-US alliance, and for the security of the Asia-Pacific region. In December 2013, the Abe administration revised the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) for fiscal 2014 and beyond, founded the National Security Council (NSC), and issued Japan’s first National Security Strategy (NSS).
The NDPG for fiscal and beyond defines Japan’s defense policy in response to the regional and global security situation. The revision reflects PM Abe’s realistic strategic views.
The 2014 NDPG describes the global security situation as follows:
The multi-polarization of the world continues as a result of shifts in the balance of power due to the further development of countries such as China and India and the relative change of influence of the United States (U.S.). At the same time, the U.S. is expected to continue to play the role in maintaining world peace and stability as it retains the largest national power.
Although the NDPG expects that the US will continue to play a leading security role in the region, it apparently recognizes that the balance of power is shifting in ways that will mean less influence for the US.
The NDPG finds reasons for concern in the Asia-Pacific in that “China has taken assertive actions with regard to issues of conflicts of interest in the maritime domain, as exemplified by its attempts to change the status quo by coercion.” The NDPG introduced a concept, the Dynamic Joint Defense Force, which represents an attempt to enhance Japan’s defense mobility and the capability to defend its own territory, especially around the Nansei Islands located in the East China Sea, where China has increased its military and paramilitary activities.
The NDPG realizes that the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is constrained by fiscal and various other factors. Despite that, the NDPG emphasizes the importance of strengthening the Japan-US alliance.
Under its policy of strategic rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. is maintaining and strengthening its engagement and presence in the region while enhancing its partnerships and cooperation with its allies, including Japan, and partner countries. As the security environment surrounding Japan becomes increasingly severer, it has become more important than ever for Japan’s security to strengthen the Japan-U.S. Alliance and make it more balanced and effective.
Meanwhile, the National Security Strategy (NSS) set the direction for Japan’s comprehensive security strategy beyond territorial defense. It states: “As a ‘Proactive Contributor to Peace’ based on the principle of international cooperation, Japan will play an active role for the peace and stability of the international community”. It will do so by:
Strengthening diplomacy at the United Nations; strengthening the rule of law; leading international efforts towards disarmament and non-proliferation; and promoting international peace cooperation and promoting international cooperation against international terrorism.
With the above rationale, the NSS emphasizes cooperation with the US not only for Japan’s territorial defense but for security in the Asia-Pacific region and on such global security issues as counterterrorism measures and the non-proliferation of WMD (weapon of mass destruction). In addition, the NSS states that Japan will provide capacity building support to other countries, such as by providing coast guard ships to ASEAN nations.
While Abe’s strategic thinking was being shaped, the US Obama administration announced its rebalancing policy toward Asia. In August 2012, an influential non-governmental and bipartisan policy proposal called the third Armitage-Nye report recommended that Japan join the TPP negotiations. Indeed, the Obama administration counted the TPP as a pillar of the US rebalancing to Asia. For example, National Security Advisor to President Obama Thomas Donilon stated that “the centerpiece of our economic rebalancing is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)” in his remarks in March 2013. Noteworthy in this regard is that the NSS states, “Japan and the U.S. aim to achieve economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region in a rules-based and transparent manner, including through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.”
The 2013 NSS included a prototype of the current Free and Open and Indo-Pacific strategy. In the section on Japan’s strategic approach to national security, after identifying the first two priorities as being Japan’s own defense efforts and strengthening the alliance with the US, the NSS cites “strengthening diplomatic and security cooperation with Japan’s partners for peace and stability in the international community” as a third priority. First, “Japan will strengthen cooperative relations with countries with which it shares universal values and strategic interests, such as the ROK, Australia, the countries of ASEAN, and India.” In order to “shape a regional order in the Asia-Pacific and to maintain and reinforce peace and stability in the international community,” Japan will utilize the Japan-U.S.-Australia trilateral framewor.
Following the reference to Australia, NSS 2013 states, “Japan will provide further assistance to their efforts towards maintaining and strengthening the unity of ASEAN” and “appreciates the efforts by the countries concerned to settle disputes in the South China Sea not by force, but in accordance with the law and rules.” After ASEAN, NSS 2013 points out the geopolitical importance of India, “as it is positioned in the center of sea lanes of communication”.
Apart from the abovementioned countries, which share common values, NSS 2013 stressed the strategic importance of China in the medium to long term. It stated that “Japan will continue to encourage China to play a responsible and constructive role for the sake of regional peace, stability and prosperity, to adhere to international norms of behavior, as well as to improve openness and transparency in its advancing military capabilities through its rapidly increasing military budget.”
It is clear that NSS 2013 is trying to influence China’s behavior by creating regional security cooperation mechanisms. It should be noted how the Abe government is interested in securing sea lanes of communication (SLOC) as a vital lifeline for Japan’s economic survival and prosperity.
NSS 2013 realizes that “open and stable seas” constitute the basis for peace and prosperity of the international community as a whole. Considering the growing risk of incidents at sea and of their possible escalation into unexpected situations, the South China Sea disputes threaten “the maintenance of the rule of law at sea, freedom of navigation, and stability in the Southeast Asian region.” NSS 2013 sees vulnerability in the sea lanes of communication “spanning between Japan and the Middle East, on which Japan is largely dependent for its natural and energy resources.”
Security Legislation as a Legal Foundation for Proactive Contributions to Peace in 2015
During the first two years of his second term, PM Abe enjoyed high approval ratings, for he succeeded in revitalizing a stagnant economy with an effective monetary policy and massive economic stimulus spending, policies popularly known as “Abenomics.” This gave Abe the political capital needed to create a legal foundation for implementing regional and global security policies under the slogan of proactive contributions to peace.
On July 1, 2014, Abe’s cabinet tried to introduce a new interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution to enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense. This issue has been controversial in Japanese politics, as many pacifists still insist on banning collective self-defense arrangements.
The National Diet eventually passed security legislation premised on the new constitutional interpretation on September 19, 2015, despite strong resistance from opposition parties and street protests. There were frustrations with the Abe government’s poor explanation of the new security legislation, but the Japanese political elite and a majority of the public realized the need for a new security legislation to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities and to enhance collaboration with the US military.
The largest opposition party, the DPJ, was harshly critical of the new security legislation. But there was and still is a strong consensus and continuity among Japanese foreign and security policy experts in their endorsement of the Abe administration’s “proactive contributions to peace.” This consensus and continuity can also be seen in Japan’s solid support of the US rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific.
Despite the active resistance of the opposition parties and liberal media, the National Diet passed the Legislation for Peace and Security in September 2015, giving the Japanese government a legal foundation for cooperation with the US and likeminded countries in ensuring regional security stability in a more proactive manner.
The legislation has two major objectives. One is to secure Japan’s peace and integrity, and the other is to contribute to international peace and stability. The Japanese government describes the first as “seamless responses to any situations to secure the lives and peaceful livelihood of the Japanese people,” and the other as enabling “Japan to contribute to the peace and stability of the international community.”
The second rationale reflects the Abe administration’s strategic thinking. The government explanation of the legislation clearly states that “Japan will be able to contribute more proactively to the peace and stability of the international community under the policy of “Proactive Contribution to Peace” based on the principle of international cooperation.”
The security legislation enables the Self-Defense Forces to provide logistics support in “the scene where combat activities are conducted at the time” of a UN peacekeeping operation to allied countries “in situations that will have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security.” Such activities were not allowed under the previous Japanese interpretation of Article 9, since they were regarded as exercises of the right to collective self-defense, which had been unconstitutional until 2014.
The legislation also enables the Japanese government to “participate in internationally coordinated operations for peace and security” other than UN PKOs under certain conditions without a special measurement law. In the past, the Japanese government needed a special measurement laws to dispatch the SDF on refueling missions in support of the multinational forces in the Indian Ocean for operations in Afghanistan (2001 and 2010) and on the humanitarian mission to postwar Iraq (2003–09). The Japanese government now has more flexibility in participating in international security activities, and the new legislation was a significant step forward in enabling Japan to make proactive contributions to peace by removing the constitutional limit to exercising the right of collective defense.
Prior to the Legislation for Peace and Security in September 2015, Japan and the United States agreed on new guidelines for security cooperation on April 27, 2015, which emphasized bilateral cooperation at the regional and global levels. For Abe, this meant advancing “proactive contributions to peace,” and for Obama, this pointed to making a renewed commitment to his rebalance to Asia policy. The new guidelines enable Japan’s broader participation in humanitarian and peacekeeping missions beyond “situations in areas surrounding Japan.” It also set parameters for bilateral cooperation in capacity building assistance, maritime security, and cyberspace for the first time.ii It is important to note that the Abe administration’s security initiatives are closely coordinated with the US side.
Thus, the Abe administration’s strategic thinking and policy from NSS 2013 to the 2015 security legislation reflected a desire to make proactive contributions to peace, which is an essence of the current the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. They define Japan’s proactive contributions to the public goods for regional and global security order through close collaboration with the Obama administration’s rebalancing policy.
Continuation of the Rationale after Trump’s Inauguration
In the US presidential election of 2016, the Japanese security community expected former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be elected. Clinton led Obama’s rebalancing policy with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, who had been working closely with Japanese experts as a major architect of the rebalancing policy since his time as deputy assistance secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific during the Bill Clinton Administration in 1990s. The election of Donald Trump in November 2016 forced the Japanese government to adopt a new approach to its regional security strategy.
The Japanese government was worried about Trump’s commitment to the alliance with Japan and to security in Asia, and also about his protectionist views. He vowed to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Japan and the Obama administration considered a core tool of the rebalance and efforts to influence China to cooperate with the regional order. Japan’s anxieties about Trump were based on his past policy positions.
In 1987, for example, Donald Trump as a wealthy businessman paid $94,801 to run advertisements in several US major newspapers, including the New York Times, stating that “For decades, Japan and other nations have been taking advantage of the United States. The saga continues unabated as we defend the Persian Gulf, an area of only marginal significance to the United States for its oil supplies, but one upon which Japan and others are almost totally dependent.” Trump’s political ad concluded, “It’s time for us to end our vast deficits by making Japan and others who can afford it, pay.”
During the 2016 election campaign, Trump’s comments revealed that his views on Japan had not changed at all since 1987. He demanded that Japan pay more for its security, including host nation support for the US military. He also suggested that both Japan and South Korea should be left to defend themselves if they did not show proper respect to the United States.
Determined to maintain close security ties with the US, Prime Minister Abe visited New York on November 27, 2016, becoming the first foreign leader to meet with president-elect Trump following his election. Abe’s willingness to build and maintain close personal ties with an unpredictable US leader resulted in a joint statement confirming the strong security ties between Japan and US in the first official Japan-US summit in February 2017, as follows:
The unshakable U.S.-Japan Alliance is the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and freedom in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. commitment to defend Japan through the full range of U.S. military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, is unwavering. Amid an increasingly difficult security environment in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States will strengthen its presence in the region, and Japan will assume larger roles and responsibilities in the alliance. The United States and Japan will continue to implement and expand defense cooperation as laid out in the 2015 U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines. The United States and Japan will further enhance cooperation with allies and partners in the region. The two leaders underscored the importance of maintaining international order based upon the rule of law.
Although the joint statement did not use the word “Indo-Pacific,” this was clearly inferred in the commitment made to enhance cooperation with allies and partners in the region. This commitment dispelled anxieties in Japan, as it reconfirmed that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the disputed Senkaku Islands. Moreover, it confirmed the common strategic objective of countering China’s assertive actions in the region as follows:
The two leaders underscored the importance of maintaining a maritime order based on international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea. The United States and Japan oppose any attempt to assert maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force. The United States and Japan also call on countries concerned to avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the South China Sea, including the militarization of outposts, and to act in accordance with international law.
Japan and the US share concerns about not only China’s assertive actions in the East and South China Sea but also China’s attempt to increase its economic influence around the world. This may be one reason that the regional scope of both governments is shifting from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific. The US National Security Strategy of 2017 states its concerns about China’s increasing influence over the Indo-Pacific region.
NSS 2017 states, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Paciﬁc region,” and it defines the region as one “which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States.” It confirms that a free and open Indo-Paciﬁc is in the US interest, harking back to the earliest days of the US. The NSS explicitly expresses concern about China’s growing regional influence through its Belt and Road Initiative.
Although the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free ﬂow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.
On November 6, 2017, prior to the release of the NSS in the United States, President Trump visited Japan and agreed on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy with Prime Minister Abe. According to a statement by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the two leaders confirmed that a free and open maritime order, including the Indo-Pacific region, based on the rule of law is a cornerstone for peace and prosperity of the international community. They stressed the importance of the Indo-Pacific region as being at the core of global vitality. They agreed that Japan and the United States will work together to promote peace and prosperity in the region by keeping the Indo-Pacific as free and open.
These interactions between Japan and the United States show that Abe’s personal chemistry with President Trump, along with institutional coordination, has successfully resulted in a bilateral agreement on the FOIP strategy.
Building a Regional Security Network
The abovementioned government statements are couched in very diplomatic language and gloss over the anxieties both Japan and the United States espouse toward the bilateral alliance and regional stability. Abe’s motivations for making proactive contributions to international peace and advancing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy were not just to respond to China’s rise but also to compensate for the US detachment from the region—both Trump’s America First doctrine and Obama’s detached stance from acting as the world’s policeman.
Japanese government officials and other experts with access to information on US military budget constraints were concerned about US detachment from Asia despite of President Obama’s rebalancing vow, particularly in view of the inward-looking public opinion in the United States. This was the hidden driving force behind Abe’s efforts to synchronize Japan’s security stance with US policies, such as rebalancing to Asia. It should be noted that Japan’s proactive contribution to peace is derivative not of optimism and trust in the US commitment to the Asia-Pacific but rather pessimism and fear that the US would become increasingly detached from the region.
For example, in March 2013, political scientist Takashi Kawakami wrote a policy recommendation to Abe based on his analysis of the US security policy direction. He pointed out that the immediate objective of US policy is to push participants in the regional security architecture to accept a bigger burden to make up for the serious defense budget constraints in the US. He also saw the possibility of President Obama retreating into isolationism, as both the Obama administration and US voters hoped to avoid becoming “entangled” in international security disputes. Considering the US position, which gave an advantage to the Chinese, Kawakami suggested that the only way for Japan to keep the US engaged in the region—and thus be assured of America’s nuclear deterrence—was for Japan to demonstrate its willingness to defend its own territory against China’s territorial challenge in the Senkaku Islands. His views were widely shared by mainstream security policy experts in Japan and have had an impact on the Abe administration’s policies.
Such anxiety over US detachment became more intense with the election of Donald Trump—known for his isolationist tendencies—as the 45th US President. Trump’s unpredictability has prompted Japan to invest its security resources not only on bilateral cooperation but also on regional network building as a “hedge” to complement the existing hub-and-spokes regional security arrangements in Asia.
Former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi (Koizumi Cabinet, 2002–04) and former Administrative Vice-Minister of Defense Masahiro Akiyama (1997–98) have spearheaded a study group and co-authored a publication, Future Perspectives on the Asia-Pacific, to explore Japan’s strategic prospects in the Trump era. The consensus of study group members, Kawaguchi states, is that the twenty-first century is unlikely to be dominated by a single hegemon, considering the relative decline of the US and the rise of China, as well as an increasingly diverse security agenda and rapid technological development. The function of the hegemon to provide international public goods will need to be shared by networks of likeminded nations. The study group calls this structure Pax Amicitia (peace through friendly networks), or “network hegemony.” Since the peaceful development of the Asia-Pacific region cannot be attained without the US and China, likeminded nations should create frameworks where the US and China can participate in as many ways as possible. Since Japan is an influential country for both the US and China, as well as being influenced by them, Japan should take the initiative in creating such a network in the Asia-Pacific.
Simultaneously, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a US think tank, has been working on a Networking Asian Security project, whose report was released in June 2017. The report makes a fundamental assumption that state power will no longer solely or even primarily be defined by its individual material attributes. It describes the Asia-Pacific region as where China is becoming increasingly assertive through the modernization of its military and where an ever-erratic North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and missiles. Other emerging challenges it cites include cyberattacks, large scale natural disasters, and the trafficking of narcotics. These challenges are clearly outstripping the available resources of the United States. The report points to the importance of building nodes in a web connecting state actors. It sees Japan and Australia as two emerging natural nodes connecting other partners in the Asia-Pacific. The CNAS report proposes that the US should “focus on embedding America’s alliances and nascent security relationships into a broader network of security partnerships.”
Indeed, these two projects, conducted around the same time in Japan and the US, share many common features. Both expect and encourage Japan to play a proactive role in building a security network in Asia. It is thus no coincidence that the Abe administration has been proactively working to provide public goods in the region and that the Japanese and US governments have quickly espoused a shared rationale for security cooperation through the FOIP framework.
Future of the FOIP Strategy
The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy is thus a product of interaction between Japanese and American experts at both the governmental and nongovernmental levels. It is not surprising that interaction among the two countries’ experts would lead to shared perspectives and similar government policy. One shortcoming of such dialogue, though, is that it cannot produce a broader consensus among Japanese and US citizens. In other words, President Trump’s populist approach could wind up demonizing Japan as an unfair trade partner, or his business instincts may prompt him to conclude a hasty deal with China or North Korea. Such unpredictable factors are potentially harmful in shaping a long-term regional security framework, such as FOIP.
At the same time, Japan’s policy rationale does not contradict the Trump administration’s tougher stance against China’s unfair economic practices and assertive security measures. Standing up to China may partly be a reflection of the anxiety felt by the American public, a sentiment broadly shared by Japanese citizens. Looking back from the future, the FOIP strategy could well represent a significant turning point for Japanese and US security strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
1 This essay is based on the author’s presentation on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific at a European think-tank in fall 2018. Currently, the Japanese government uses the term "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative" in its official documents, instead of the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy." The author uses "strategy" here to shed light on the strategic rationale of the Japanese government.
3 Tsuneo “Nabe” Watanabe, “Japan’s ‘Proactive Contribution’ and the US Rebalancing Policy,” in David W.F. Huang eds., Asia Pacific Countries and the US Rebalancing Strategy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan: 2016), pp.103–120.
18 The secretariat of the Frontier Subcommittee, “The Frontier Subcommittee Report (Overview) - Toward a “Country of Co-Creation” which Generates New Value by Manifesting and Creatively Linking Various Strengths - (Tentative Translation) ,” July 6, 2012, p.4.
50 Takashi Kawakami, “Dainiki Obama seikenka-no Nichibei Domei,” (Japan-US alliance under the Second Obama Administration) in Fumiaki Kubo, Akio Takahara and the Tokyo Foundation eds. Ajia kaiki suru America (America’s Rebalancing to Asia), NTT Shuppan, 2013, p.138.