"Cooperative Strategy" to Realize "Competitive Strategy"
--- The composite structure of Japan's "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy (vision) ---

Matake Kamiya
Professor at The National Defense Academy of Japan


In recent years, the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy (vision) has unexpectedly been considered "the most important asset of Japanese diplomacy."1 The present author has been giving consistent focus to the concept of "Indo-Pacific" and discussing whether it could be a core concept in Japan's regional security policy. (His papers on this topic enumerated below eloquently testify to the author's contribution to establishing this strategic concept. --- The Editor)2

However, it is not necessarily clear as to what are the nature and goals of this strategy. What makes matters complicated is that Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy includes two aspects of both a "competitive strategy" and a "cooperative strategy" targeting China.3 Moreover, this tendency seems to recently become increasingly more notable. In view of the circumstances as will be elaborated later there is no doubt that Japan's initial motive of discussing the regional concept of "Indo-Pacific" was intended to maintain the regional order based on liberal rules against the growing assertiveness of a rising China. Obviously, such an idea has not yet disappeared. Nowadays, however, the Japanese government avoids the word "strategy" and instead uses the expression "vision", when talking about "Free and Open Indo-Pacific." Reportedly, the Japanese government is giving consideration to Southeast Asian countries that worry about becoming sandwiched between China and the United States and Japan, both of which are advocating this strategy.4 The "comprehensiveness" of the concept has been stressed to suggest that "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" is not designed to exclude China. In January 2019, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted on its website a public article titled "Free and Open Indo-Pacific." In the English version of the material, "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" is represented as a vision; and furthermore, the vision is defined as an open, comprehensive concept that does not exclude any country. On the other hand, it is emphasized that toward the realization of "Free and Open Indo-Pacific," Japan will maintain or promote the rules-based international order as the foundation of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, including the rule of law and the freedom of navigation.5 In the background is Japan's vigilance against China's assertive behavior that is destabilizing the regional order based on existing rules.

What is the reason for this apparent incongruity? Is the strategic or conceptual dualism a proof that "inconsistency" is inherent in Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy?6

1. Pre-history of the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy --- "competitive strategy" as a motive

As is widely known, Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy originated from an idea of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The "National Security Strategy" issued in December 2013, which expounds on the basic principles of diplomatic and security policies of the second Abe administration, states that "the maintenance and protection of international order based on rules and universal values, such as freedom, democracy, respect for fundamental human rights, and the rule of law, are likewise in Japan's national interests."7 Based on this idea, the Abe administration has been trying to strengthen diplomatic and security engagement in the vast areas that constitute the linkage connecting the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean as far as Africa.

Immediately after returning to the helm of his administration at the end of December 2012, Prime Minister Abe came to regard the areas extending from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean as a region, and to extend the horizon of Japan's Asia strategy to include the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean. He began to be proactive in taking leadership in maintaining the international order based on liberal rules that have been the foundation of peace and prosperity in Asia, the world, and Japan for many years after World War II. He planned to give an important diplomatic address entitled "The Bounty of the Open Seas: Five New Principles for Japanese Diplomacy" in Jakarta on January 18, 2013, only three weeks after the inauguration of his second administration. However, the speech was not delivered --- the Prime Minister had to return home earlier than scheduled due to the occurrence of an incident in which Japanese nationals were apprehended in Algeria. Yet, the full text of the speech was soon posted on the website of the Prime Minister's Official Residence.8 In it, Abe states, "Japan's national interest lies eternally in keeping Asia's seas unequivocally open, free, and peaceful --- in maintaining them as the commons for all the people of the world, where the rule of law is fully realized." The text further reads: "… freedom of thought, expression, and speech in this region where two oceans (the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean) meet. These are universal values that humanity has gained and they must be allowed to flower to the fullest. … the seas, which are the most vital commons to us all, are governed by laws and rules, not by might." Although he does not employ the word "Indo-Pacific," he regards "the confluence of the two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific", as an integral region, where, he appeals to the world, "universal values" should be respected, and the order based on "laws and rules", instead of "might," should be maintained.

About one month later, on February 23, 2013, Prime Minister Abe, in a policy speech entitled "Japan is Back" at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, clearly uttered the word "Indo-Pacific."9 The Prime Minister declared, "… when the Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific region becomes more and more prosperous. Japan must remain a leading promoter of rules." After returning home, the Prime Minister said in his Policy Speech to the 183rd Session of the Diet on February 28, "We will deepen our cooperation with Australia and India as well as the countries of ASEAN and other maritime Asian nations, with the close Japan-U.S. relationship as our cornerstone."10 The statement also represents the Prime Minister's will to expand Japan's Asia diplomacy from the Asia-Pacific region through the Indian Ocean.

Then, what was the Prime Minister's motive of aiming to "expand" the Asia-Pacific? Let us look at his English article "Asia's Democratic Security Diamond" that came out on December 27, 2012, a day after his assuming office for the second time.11 This paper, written in November 2012 prior to the General Elections of the year, explains his views on the then international political situation surrounding Japan more straightforwardly than his speech delivered immediately after his second inauguration. In the introductory part of the paper, Abe declares, "Peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean are inseparable from peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean." He then continues, "Japan, as one of the oldest sea-faring democracies in Asia, should play a greater role in preserving the common good in both regions." The common good in this context is "navigational freedom across the Pacific and Indian oceans" which, Abe fundamentally recognizes, is being threatened by China's challenge. "Increasingly, the South China Sea seems set to become a ‘Lake Beijing'," he warns. In order to prevent the South China Sea from becoming "even more fortified" by China, Japan should not yield to the country trying to add to pressure around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. "Japan's top foreign-policy priority must be to expand the country's strategic horizons." The paper's title phrase "Asia's Democratic Security Diamond" represents a graphic form of Japan's expanded strategic horizons that Abe advocates. It signifies a strategic vision aiming at the diamond-shaped formation of framework connecting democratic countries in the region --- Japan, Hawaii (USA), Australia, and India.

Thus, Abe's vision of linking the Indian Ocean to the Asia-Pacific is accompanied by his intention to check the growing assertiveness of a rising China. In his "Security Diamond" paper, Abe invites not only the United States, Australia and India but also Britain and France to "stage a comeback in terms of participating in strengthening Asia's security." He refers to South Korea as a trading nation that would be seriously affected, if China further engaged with its fortifications in the South China Sea. Abe's "Security Diamond" came from the idea that these countries should be linked by common values inherent to liberal democracy, and should collaborate as guardians of navigational freedom across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

In addition, Abe's Indo-Pacific-oriented policy may be accounted for by the influence of "value oriented diplomacy" that he propounded in his first administration. For example, at the end of the "Security Diamond" paper, Abe argues that in order to improve the Japan-China relations Japan must first consolidate its relationship with the United States, although he acknowledges that the relationship with China is of cardinal importance to the welfare of the Japanese. He further states as follows:

  … for, at the end of the day, Japan's diplomacy must always be rooted in democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. These universal values have guided Japan's postwar development. I firmly believe that, in 2013 and beyond, the Asia-Pacific region's future prosperity should rest on them as well.

What symbolized the value-oriented diplomacy of the first Abe administration was the concept of "Arc of Freedom and Prosperity." This was to transform the sweeping arc stretching from the Nordic states to the Baltic States, Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia into a prosperous, stable region based on universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and market economy.12 In this concept, Abe imparted an important position to India, which, with a huge population, was achieving economic development under democracy. Abe came up with the idea of a "broader Asia" linking the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.

This idea was clearly expounded in the speech he delivered at the Indian parliament on 22 August 2007.13 Its title "Confluence of the Two Seas" indicated his perception of the times: "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."

The first Abe administration established a "Strategic Global Partnership" with the Indian government. According to Abe, "This partnership is an association in which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and the respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests… The Strategic Global Partnership of Japan and India is pivotal for" Japan's efforts to form a region called ‘the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity.'" Then, he continued:

... By Japan and India coming together in this way, this "broader Asia" will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia. Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely.

Can we not say that … it is incumbent upon us two democracies, Japan and India, to carry out the pursuit of freedom and prosperity in the region?

He called on India for cooperation, emphasizing that both Japan and India are democracies.

At the same time, Abe pointed out that as maritime states, "both India and Japan have vital interests in the security of sea lanes."

From now on let us together bear this weighty responsibility that has been entrusted to us, by joining forces with like-minded countries.

The question of what Japan and India should do cooperatively in the area of security in the years to come is one that the officials in charge of diplomacy and defence in our countries must consider jointly.

Abe "put" his proposal "before Prime Minister Singh for his consideration."

Abe did not mention China in his speech at the Indian parliament. However, his proposal that, considering the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean as one region, Japan, the United States, Australia and other countries should strengthen cooperation with India evidently took into consideration the emerging China. In this sense, Abe's "broader Asia" vision portended the basic idea of the Indo-Pacific strategy that he was to advocate in his second administration. Abe himself is aware of that. He begins his paper "Asia's Democratic Security Diamond" by recalling that his speech at the Indian parliament received great applause from Indian legislators, adding, "In the five years since then, I have become even more strongly convinced that what I said was correct."

As is clear from the above brief analysis, the starting point of Japan's "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy can be found in Prime Minister Abe's belief that, in defiance of China's growing assertiveness, Japan must help maintain the international order based on liberal rules as the foundation of international peace and prosperity in the post-war era. Abe had previously thought that Japan should play a leading role in such efforts. To that end, he worked out the vision of extending the geographical scope of the Asia-Pacific to include the Indian Ocean, thereby promoting cooperation with India and Australia. In other words, Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy started as a "competitive strategy" against the increasingly assertive China.

2. The "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy --- its aspect of "cooperative strategy"

Prime Minister Abe presented his Indo-Pacific strategic vision as the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy" (FOIP) in his keynote speech at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) in Nairobi, Kenya on August 27, 2016.14 In this speech, the Prime Minister said, "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." Abe did not mention China. However, his remarks that he would like to foster "the confluence of … Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion" indicate his awareness of China's behavior creating the impression that the country would not hesitate to change the status quo by force in the South China and East China Seas.

According to the Japanese government, the FOIP is based on the following "three pillars": (1) Promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and other fundamental values by maintaining basic principles of the international order as the basis of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. (2) Pursuit of economic prosperity by improving (a) "physical connectivity" including quality infrastructure development; (b) "people-to-people connectivity" through assistance in education and job training and promotion of friendship; and (c) "institutional connectivity" by coordination and common rules through EPA/FTAs. (3) "Commitment for peace and stability" through capacity-building assistance including the strengthening of capacity of maritime law enforcement and through cooperation in such fields as, among other things, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.15 The strategy aims at securing peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific as a free and open region. Again, behind the expression --- the maintenance of "basic principles of the international order as the basis of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific" --- is a recognition that the said order is recently destabilized by China's challenges. Seeing that "Promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and other fundamental values by maintaining basic principles of the international order as the basis of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific" takes precedence over the other two pillars, Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy, irrespective of being labeled as "free and open," consistently retains its aspect of "competitive strategy" against China as an essential factor.

However, the feature that cannot be overlooked regarding the FOIP is that it has come to assume the aspect of "cooperation strategy" toward China.

Prime Minister Abe explained the FOIP as follows in his Policy Speech to the Diet on January 22, 2018. He repeatedly stressed the aspect of "competitive strategy" against China.16

Japan will work together with countries with which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. We will work hand-in-hand with the United States, as well as Europe, ASEAN members, Australia, India, and other countries to ensure the peace and prosperity of this region stretching from Asia and the Pacific Rim to the Indian Ocean.

A vast expanse of sea stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. Since ancient times the people of this region have enjoyed affluence and prosperity from this large and free body of water. Freedom of navigation and the rule of law form their bedrock. We must ensure that these waters are a public good that brings peace and prosperity to all people without discrimination into the future. To this end, we will promote the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

However, the Prime Minister continued, "Based on this overall direction, we will also work with China to meet the growing infrastructure demand in Asia." In other words, it was a manifestation of his intention to explore cooperation with China under the FOIP, or to adopt a "cooperative strategy" toward China.

After that, the Japanese government has in fact begun to explore the possibility of cooperation with China over the FOIP and the "One Belt, One Road Initiative."17 In this process, when talking about "Free and Open Indo-Pacific," the Japanese government, as mentioned earlier, came to employ "vision" instead of "strategy." Prime Minister Abe's reference to the Indo-Pacific in his Policy Speech to the Diet on January 28, 2019 showed a remarkable change from his Policy Speech one year ago.

And we will continue to make the vast ocean and sky from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean the foundation of peace and prosperity that will benefit all countries, large or small. In cooperation with all the countries that share this vision, Japan will build "Free and Open Indo-Pacific."18

In this speech, the word "strategy" has disappeared, and "vision" is employed instead. Since the expression "peace and prosperity that will benefit all countries, large or small" suggests such peace and prosperity as based on rules that do not allow large countries to pursue their national interests by exerting pressure by force on small countries, the speech preserves the nuance of "competitive strategy" that is conscious of China. Nonetheless, any expression as was found in his speech in the previous year, "Japan will work together with countries with which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law," does not appear.

The reported reason is that the Japanese government did not like its commitment to "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" to be misunderstood as a containment strategy against China. Since Prime Minister Abe sought to improve Japan-China relations on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China, he did not want to unnecessarily irritate China by use of the word "strategy." Getting the approval of the Trump administration, the Japanese government began to change wording from around September 2018.19 For example, during his visits to three Asia-Pacific nations in November 2018, Abe did not use the word "strategy" when referring to the Indo-Pacific. At the East Asia Summit in Singapore on November 15, the Prime Minister stated, "The ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific' vision will not exclude any country."20 He stressed that the Japanese vision in question would include China.

Earlier than this at the time of Abe's visit to China in late October 2018, the two countries confirmed the bilateral cooperation in infrastructure investments toward third party countries through implementation of win-win projects beneficial to those countries, in line with international standards such as openness, transparency, economic efficiency, target countries' financial soundness. This is drawing attention as a move to explore the points of contact and compatibility between the FOIP and China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative."21

In this way, Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy (vision) has incorporated a new policy of including China as much as possible in the quest for peace and stability in this region, in addition to the original policy of advancing cooperation with such countries as the United States, Australia and India that share fundamental values and principles with Japan, thereby establishing a desirable order in this region.22 Moreover, since the announcement of the FOIP, the newly incorporated policy has seemed to gradually increase in importance.

3. Inevitable Coexistence --- "Cooperative Strategy" and "Competitive Strategy"

How should we then view the fact that in Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy, there exist simultaneously two opposite directions toward "competitive strategy" and "cooperative strategy" regarding China? As a certain researcher argues, should it be interpreted as "inconsistency"?23 Or is there any reason for the coexistence of two directions --- besides a mere "inconsistency"?

Actually, as the following analysis shows, inevitable reasons are recognized for the coexistence of the two directions.

First of all, it is impossible for Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy to lose its direction to the "competitive strategy," because, as we have already seen, Japan's fundamental motive of proposing this strategy lies in its desire to safeguard the regional order based on the existing liberal rules against the growing assertiveness of China, as well as in its consciousness that Japan should fulfill a leading role to this end.

Prime Minister Abe's remarks in this respect are unwavering. Looking at his Policy Speech to the Diet on January 28, 2019, there is no expression such as "work together with countries with which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law" as was in his Policy Speech to the Diet last year. Rather with the expression "peace and prosperity that will benefit all countries, large or small," he did not forget to send a signal to China to the effect that the country should not oppress small countries by force to pursue its national interests. On November 13, 2018, half a month after his visit to China at the end of October 2018 to improve the bilateral relations, Prime Minister Abe met with Vice President Pence in Tokyo and, he reportedly agreed with the US Vice President that Japan and the United States should work together under the FOIP to accelerate cooperation in high-quality infrastructure, energy and digital sectors in third countries, and to continue diplomatic and economic collaboration, thereby checking a hegemonic China ignoring international rules.24 On October 28, 2018 or the next day after returning home from his visit to China, Abe invited Prime Minister Modi of India to his villa at Narusawa village in Yamanashi Prefecture to dine together. He demonstrated his closeness with the Indian premier in manifesting his will to strengthen the Japan-India cooperation under the FOIP.25 According to a certain high ranking MOFA official, Prime Minister Modi's visit to Japan was intentionally scheduled for the day immediately following Abe's return home from China --- rather than because of circumstantial coordination reasons with the Chinese side on Abe's trip --- in order to show to the world that Japan's basic stance in its Indo-Pacific strategy will be unequivocal, regardless of some improvements in the Japan-China relations.26

The "comprehensiveness" of the FOIP, which the Japanese government has emphasized lately, does not negate its aspect of "competitive strategy," for this comprehensiveness is not unconditional. In his January 28 Policy Speech cited earlier, Prime Minister Abe says that Japan will build a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific," "in cooperation with all the countries that share the vision of making "the vast ocean and sky from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean the foundation of peace and prosperity that will benefit all countries, large or small." As mentioned earlier, the expression "peace and prosperity that will benefit all countries, large or small" implies that what matters is peace and prosperity based on rules that do not allow large countries to oppress small countries by force in pursuit of their national interests. Consequently, this remark by Abe can be construed to suggest that China's attitude of respecting the Japanese "vision" of the "rule-based Indo-Pacific order" would be a prerequisite for Japan to cooperate with China in the Indo-Pacific.

Therefore, it is undeniable that Japan's India-Pacific strategy assumes the aspect of a "competitive strategy." Then, why is the aspect of "cooperative strategy" expanding on the other hand? One reason is that Prime Minister Abe intends to improve the Japan-China relations. Because Japan is located geographically near to China, it is impossible for it to maintain an exclusively confrontational policy against China in the way the United States has lately shown. Since the so-called four-point agreement in November 2014, Abe has endeavored to improve Japan-China relations, and on the occasion of his visit to China in October 2018, he held talks with Premier Li Keqiang, manifesting his will to develop the Japan-China relationship into a new era from competition to cooperation. 27 Actually, as is known from the fact that Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy retains the aspect of "competitive strategy" after this visit, Japan's China policy has not been directed to become exclusively cooperative. Even if it is acknowledged that the Japan-China relationship is improving, it is still on the way recovering from minus back to even28 --- it has not yet returned to an even score. It is natural that Prime Minister Abe does not want his Indo-Pacific strategy to unnecessarily irritate China, for nobody would wish to throw the bilateral relationship back to an extremely bad state like prior to the four-point agreement.

There is another more important reason why Japan is now emphasizing the aspect of "cooperative strategy" in its Indo-Pacific strategy. It is necessary to avoid giving the impression to other counties that Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy is excessively confrontational toward China, if Japan wants to safeguard the existing international order favorable to Japanese interests.

For example, ASEAN countries are anxious that Japan's Indo-Pacific vision may have a meaning of checking or excluding China.29 Indian Prime Minister Modi, who shows his readiness to work with Japan over the FOIP, says that India's strategic autonomy remains unchanged and India will not ride on any Indo-Pacific strategy antagonistic to specific countries.30 For Australia, the Indo-Pacific is a strategic concept taking into account a possible rivalry with China, but not a vision to exclude China. Australia's ultimate goal seems to build the international order based on rules in the way China is included.1

What matters here is that the international order cannot be constructed merely by unilateral efforts of particular countries. Japan is definitely still the third largest economy in the world in terms of GDP. The United States, which proposes its own "free and open Indo-Pacific" bearing a nuance somewhat different from the Japanese vision, boasts of its position as the world's top economic and military power. Nonetheless, it would be impossible, with the efforts of Japan and the United States alone, to build a "free and open order" in the Indo-Pacific. It is not until other countries become ready to accept such an order concept that the order in question will be formed with success.

Therefore, as long as Japan is earnest about the realization of "Free and Open Indo-Pacific," Japan must focus on "attracting" other countries to its vision. ASEAN countries, India and Australia are particularly important countries from this point of view. As mentioned earlier, however, if Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy were to bring too much to the fore its aspect of a "competitive strategy" against China, these countries might withdraw from the Japanese vision. To avoid this, Japan needs to emphasize that its Indo-Pacific vision also includes the aspect a "cooperation strategy."

In other words, for the purpose of making a success of its vision of order in the Indo-Pacific as a "competitive strategy" against China, Japan must give more than a certain amount of consideration to its aspect of "cooperative strategy" toward China.


Consequently, it is not appropriate to consider it "inconsistent" that Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy should simultaneously assume the following two different directions:

  1. Cooperate with the countries sharing basic values and philosophy, such as the United States, Australia and India, to compete with China, thereby creating a desirable order in this region, and
  2. Incorporate China in the said strategic vision and promote cooperation with China, thereby aiming at peace and prosperity in the region.

In order to make a success of a "competitive strategy," a "cooperative strategy" is necessary --- this is a reality surrounding Japan's Indo-Pacific vision.

Needless to say, it may not be easy to pursue these two strategies with opposite objectives. The success or failure of the FOIP will depend on whether Japanese diplomacy can discover measures to this end.

(This paper is prepared by the SSDP secretariat.)

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