SHARE >>>  

Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Gains Momentum

By Ariane Combal-Weiss

14 February 2018

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy has gained currency over the last few months, much to the irritation of China. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was promoted by President Trump during his Asia tour and has been picked up by political leaders in India and Australia. On 12 November the four powers held talks covering the rules-based order in Asia, freedom of navigation and overflight in maritime commons, respect for international law, enhancing connectivity, maritime security and terrorism. Although each country offered a slightly different interpretation of the outcome, there was much talk about shared vision and interests. The US and Australia emphasised the security dimension. [1] Japan and India, however, omitted to mention key aspects, namely ‘connectivity,’ ’freedom of navigation’, ‘respect for international law’ and ‘maritime security’ for India. The divergences also suggest different strategic priorities for the Indo Pacific region, and thus only a partial endorsement of Abe’s strategy.

The US vision of the Indo-Pacific region was set out before Trump’s Asia tour by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in an 18 October speech. For Washington, he said, the renewed use of the term ‘reflects the Pacific Command’s vast area of responsibility and the maritime basis of US power.’[2] The National Security Strategy unveiled on 18 December 2017 spoke of the development of the quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia and India as ‘a priority of US foreign policy.’ In the Pentagon’s understanding of the ‘Indo-Pacific’, regional security is underpinned by freedom of navigation at sea. While Washington now calls China a ‘strategic competitor’ the other three members of the Quad have been more circumspect.[3]

As far as New Delhi is concerned, the Quad should aim to assuage fears in India about China’s growing pressure on India’s borders and the controversial projects that are implemented around India under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Over the last 15 years, India’s focus has shifted towards greater alignment with the US. Since US lifted the moratorium on nuclear trade with India in 2005, bilateral ties were strengthened through partnerships in defence, energy security, economic, financial, and strategic issues. As for India-Japan relations, the Abe-Modi friendship, cemented during Abe’s visit to India in September 2017,[4] plays a central role in their vision for the Indo-Pacific region. Their meeting brought the free and open Indo Pacific concept to new heights and 15 agreements were signed to broaden their strategic partnership. [5] India-Australia relations have suffered a number of setbacks, making it the weak link in the Quad grouping. Canberra’s withdrawal from the Quad in 2008, the Australian ban on uranium sales to India as well as attacks on Indian students in Melbourne have increased mistrust in India about the reliability of Canberra. But PM Turnbull’s visit to India in April 2017 was well received as an attempt to open a new chapter for Australia-India relations.

The expression ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been increasingly used in Australian foreign policy documents over the last years, including in the 2013 Defence white paper. In the 2017 foreign policy white paper, Turnbull’s foreword includes a reference to the promotion of an ‘open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, in which the rights of all states are respected.’[6] The document outlines Canberra’s aim of stepping up coordination with India and Japan on security developments in the Indian Ocean. It also sought to ensure that the US sticks to its security commitments in the region. During PM Turnbull’s visit to Tokyo in January 2018, both countries agreed to ramp up defence cooperation building on the Special Strategic Partnership and the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue with the US. Yet reviving the Quad has stirred heated debates in Australia about how to deal with China. Some claim the Quad would unnecessarily antagonise Beijing, such as the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating.[7] Others, including Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute James Curran, have expressed their scepticism about the potential of the Quad to act as a counterweight to China, and underscored the competing national interests among the Quad members.[8]


The origins of the Indo-Pacific strategy 

Building on the Japan-India strategic dialogue initiated in 2006, Shinzo Abe articulated the concept of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ in a speech delivered at the Indian Parliament in 2007, entitled ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’. He introduced Japan’s vision of a region based on common values, such as democracy, freedom, and respect for human rights.[9] Abe referred to an ‘immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the US and Australia. Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely.’

Japanese diplomats and experts have built on Abe’s speech arguing that the four main powers (Japan, India, Australia and the US) should work to uphold the rules-based regional order, in particular with regard to the resolution of maritime disputes and guarantee freedom of trade and navigation. Such cooperation, they argue, would send a strong message to North Korea and China, now deemed a strategic competitor by Trump.

In parallel with calls for an Indo-Pacific strategy, Abe has also pushed for an ‘Arc of freedom and prosperity on the Eurasian Continent’, to support economic development and democracy and counter the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Central Asia. In addition, Tokyo promoted the establishment of an ‘East Asian Community.’ Brought up at a high-level working group of ASEAN Plus Three (APT) in June 2006, the idea was to boost cooperation in trade, investment, finance and human security among APT members and Australia, New Zealand and India. The community would be based on shared values.[10]


Japanese leadership

Although Japan’s Indo Pacific strategy is centred on the Quad, it also provides Tokyo with a normative framework to build a coalition of democracies in the wider region. Japan is a major provider of development assistance to foster connectivity, prosperity and security between Asia and Africa Japan’s priorities include peace building, refugee assistance and countermeasures against violent extremism. In May 2015, Abe announced that Tokyo would provide $100 billion to the Asian Development Bank for the development of ‘quality infrastructure’ in Asia. East and South Asia received 61.2% of Japanese ODA in 2016 and these trends are likely to be confirmed.[11] 

These moves have been seen by many as an attempt by Japan to compete with China’s increased presence in the Asia-Pacific and to offer an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[12] For Aries Aruguay, associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, the strategy has a real potential to provide an alternative to China’s BRI.[13] Japan’s support to strengthening Asian countries capacity building, especially coast guards, reveals their concerns over China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. 

According to Yul Sohn, professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, the presence of Australia, India and the United States in the East Asian Community – which influenced Abe’s Free and Open Indo Pacific strategy – makes it the ‘most sophisticated content of any of the competing regionalist messages’.[14] The Japan-led regionalism pursues an ultimate goal, that is, to garner support from India and other partners on foreign policy issues, such as on East and South China Seas.

Looking to South East Asia, Japan played a key role in establishing the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund in 2006. It has asserted itself as a ’thought leader’ in Southeast Asia, as it set up the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) in 2006, supported by the ASEAN Economic Ministers. Japan is thus providing intellectual and capacity-building leadership and tries to promote a regional order with its own values.


Chinese Reactions 

Over the last few months, the Chinese media have warned against an attempt by the four countries to contain China. Containment is indeed a buzzword in Beijing’s understanding of the Quad and the Indo-Pacific strategy. For the CPC-sponsored Global Times, Abe’s strategy attempts to suppress China’s maritime rights by organising alliances with India, Australia, South Korea and Southeast Asian and Pacific island countries through so-called ‘value-diplomacy.’ After the Quad meeting in November, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang cautioned that regional cooperation should be neither politicised nor exclusionary. In addition, Beijing argues that the military bases and facilities built under the Quad could add security risks to the sea trade lines part of its BRI plans in the Indian Ocean.[15]


The EU role   

The EU has high stakes in Asia, which go far beyond the French and British maritime presence in the region. It has every reason to support the free and open Indo Pacific strategy, especially given its emphasis on the rule of law. At the last EU-Japan Foreign Ministers’ meeting in April 2017, both Japan FM Fumio Kishida and the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini highlighted the convergences between the EU Global Strategy and the free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Stronger bilateral cooperation could help implement EU’s maritime capacity building support in Southeast Asia and strengthen connectivity between Asia and Europe.[16] Yet, the Quad as a quasi-military alliance will prevent the EU from fully endorsing the concept.[17]



Although the Quad countries have agreed to intensify cooperation there remain doubts over its cohesion and efficacy in addressing regional security issues. Canberra, Tokyo and even Washington have no wish to get involved in India-Chinese border disputes. India puts more emphasis on concerns in the Indian Ocean than the South China Sea, while Japan seeks reassurance on the East China Sea. The success of the Quad will depend inter alia on the relations of each Quad member with China, as well as on Trump’s transactional approach in Asia-Pacific.[18] Only a substantive and practical cooperation based on a clear agenda and long-term vision will guarantee the sustainability of the Quad meeting.

Moreover, the “East Asian Community” as a theoretical root of Abe’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy is too much reminiscent of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, an imperial concept developed by Japan in the 1930s. The suspicion that stems from it, as well as Tokyo’s ambiguity towards protection of human rights in Southeast Asia, adds to the limitations of this normative framework. In addition, the other regional stakeholders, such as South Korea and ASEAN countries, welcome the strategy with caution, as they do not want to antagonize China. Most ASEAN countries do not wish to take sides between US-Japan and China, which is a major trade partner and aid provider in Southeast Asia.[19]  Japan will thus be pleased at recent endorsements of its Indo-Pacific strategy but recognise that there is still some way to go before the Quad becomes a coherent driving force.

[1] Ankit Panda, “US, Japan, India, and Australia Hold Working-Level Quadrilateral Meeting on Regional Cooperation ”, The Diplomat, 13/11/2017. URL:

[2] Malcolm Cook, “Asia is no longer Pacific”, The Straits Times, 30/11/2017. URL:

[3] Tetsuo Kotani, “Can the ‘Indo-Pacific’ compete with China?”, 10/01/2017. URL:

[4] Modi invited Abe to his home state of Gujarat.

[5] The India-Japan Joint Statement released during Abe’s visit to India on September 14, 2017 was entitled “Toward a Free, Open and Prosperous Indo-Pacific”. 

[6] “Prime Minister’s Introduction”, Australian Government, 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper – Opportunity, Security, Strength, 23/11/2017.

[7] Jonathan Pearlman, “Heated debate in Australia over quadrilateral security dialogue”, The Straits Times, 30/11/2017. URL:

8] James Curran, “Trump exhumes the diplomatic carcass of the Security Quad”, Financial Review, 17/11/2017.

[9] "Confluence of the Two Seas", Speech by H.E. Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan at the Parliament of the Republic of India, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 22/08/2007. URL:

[10] Yul Sohn, “Attracting Neighbors: Soft Power Competition in East Asia”, The Korean Journal of Policy Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2011), pp. 77-96.

[11] Priority Policy for Development Cooperation, International Cooperation Bureau, MOFA, April 2017. URL :

[12] Priority Policy for Development Cooperation, International Cooperation Bureau, MOFA, April 2017. URL :

[13] Ko Hirano, “ASEAN, S. Korea wary of Indo-Pacific strategy’s effect on China”, The Myanmar Times, 23/11/2017. URL:

[14] Yul Sohn, “Attracting Neighbors: Soft Power Competition in East Asia”, The Korean Journal of Policy Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2011), pp. 77-96.

[15] Liang Fang, “Indo-Pacific strategy will likely share the same fate as rebalance to Asia-Pacific”, The Global Times, 03/12/2017. URL:

[16]Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-EU Foreign Ministers’ Meeting”, 10/04/2017. URL:

[17] Mercy A. Kuo, “What the EU Thinks of the US ‘Indo-Pacific’ Strategy”, The Diplomat, 31/01/2018. URL :

[18] Prashanth Parameswaran, “Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Challenge”, The Diplomat, 27/10/2017. URL:

[19] Ko Hirano, “ASEAN, S. Korea wary of Indo-Pacific strategy’s effect on China”, The Myanmar Times, 23/11/2017. URL: