Japan’s Indo-Pacific Outlook: An Evolutionary Process

Subhranil Ghosh and Sreemoyee Majumder
December 22, 2019


Since World War II, Shigeru Yoshida, who was serving as Prime Minister, chose a minimalistic defense stance and an alignment with the United States for Japan. This stance ensured Japan’s security, and it gradually came to represent the Japanese regional outlook, which even got constitutional support through Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which outlaws war as a means to settle the international dispute. Tokyo displayed a firm commitment to the ideal of pacifism. Japanese leaders, for fear of upsetting the East Asian power balance, never translated Japan’s enormous economic power into hard military capabilities. Besides, Japan’s Ocean Policy is often criticized as being too passive, in spite of being a maritime nation. However, today the Japanese maritime policy, overwhelmingly bent on the Indo-Pacific, seems to reflect both objectivity and seriousness.

Issues which Affected Japan’s Regional Outlook

There are two broad issues for Japan that have impacted Japan’s regional outlook. Security issues involving North Korea and China, and its emerging foreign policy consensus on the Indo-Pacific. Since the beginning of this century, primarily two issues have led to a change in Japan’s defense and security posture- the North Korean nuclear program and, more importantly, the rise of China and its rapidly increasing influence in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Chinese adventures in this region and claims of sovereignty over the Senkaku islands stem from PRC’s sense of historical injustice committed against it by the colonial powers in general and Imperial Japan in particular. Both parties are primarily interested in establishing sovereign rights over the islands because the territory is close to vital shipping lanes and rich fishing grounds, with possible oil deposits. Historically, Japan has been overly circumspect in asserting its maritime claims, even if they were legitimate. Japanese attempts to plug the loopholes in the China-Japan Fisheries Agreement by declaring an EEZ and renegotiate its bilateral fisheries agreement were met with Beijing’s resistance. It outrightly rejected Japanese EEZ claims in the East China Sea and proceeded to conduct hydrographic surveys, Maritime Scientific Research, and gather intelligence. Japan’s domestic institutions were ill-prepared to address the issue of the intrusions. Consistent with a reactive state paradigm, Tokyo’s maritime security posture only addressed only a little of what was required to deal with external pressure. This continued throughout the 1990s. In May 2004, the discovery of die Chunxiao drilling installation less than five nautical miles west of Tokyo’s median line served as a trigger for Japan. Tokyo’s discreet diplomatic approach had proven fruitless to advance its interests. Japan had been jolted into action. There was enormous domestic pressure to adopt a much more assertive role in deterring Chinese highhandedness. This specific concern had to be followed by a larger transformation at the regional level. The Indo-Pacific provided the scope for a change in Japan’s strategic regional outlook.

At the broader region level, Shinzo Abe conceived a Democratic Security Diamond (DSD), with the four states (Japan, India, Australia, and the USA) representing the four edges of a diamond. Coming back to power in December 2012, Abe wrote an opinion piece in Project Syndicate officially advocating the creation of the DSD among like-minded states in order to shield the area stretching from the IOR to the western Pacific Ocean from the Chinese arm-twisting. Specifically speaking, what Abe dreaded the most was the South China Sea becoming a ‘Lake Beijing’. Thus, he propounded an active power-balancing role for Japan repudiating its benign status, as reflected in the Yoshida doctrine. 

The shift in Japanese strategy from that of Yoshida’s approach is remarkable in many aspects. The yet to mature Abe doctrine, in contrast to its predecessor, pledged an entrenched commitment towards Japan-US security engagement with Japan playing a far more active role in sharing the burden of a security provider in the Asia Pacific region. Interestingly this was in perfect tune with the Trump Administration, who prioritized the ‘America First’ policy. However, the most significant shift was perhaps with respect to Japan’s ban on collective self-defense. In 2014, the Abe government issued a cabinet decision, contravening the over 60-year-old ban and formulated a new concept of ‘limited’ collective self-defense. It put forward, three conditions, namely; in case of an attack on Japan’s neighbor which has a possibility to threaten the life, liberty and happiness of Japanese people, where there’s no other appropriate means to counter an attack and where the use of force is restricted to minimum necessary to repeal an attack. Thus, as propagated by Abe himself, Japan’s new strategy was endorsing a much more decisive role for the state. Concomitantly, Abe pushed for a more active ocean policy, which was, for its part, driven by two pieces of legislation- one was formulated to streamline the policy-making approach, and a new ministry for ocean policy was created under the stewardship of the Prime Minister. The second piece of legislation was the Law on Establishing Safety Areas for Maritime Structures.  Furthermore, Abe’s Japan claims to embrace and uphold a value-oriented diplomacy, in their pursuit of rendering an alternative to China’s illiberal values.

What has further acted as an impetus to Japan’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region is China’s multi-billion dollar project of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the proposed Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). The greatest Japanese concern in regard to this is, that the MSRI as planned out by China has huge possibility of blocking energy shipments to East Asia, given the fact that Japan imports 90% of its energy in the region. Although Japan has been playing a critical role in the infrastructure development of the Asia Pacific region with Asian Development Bank (ADB) providing the funds, immediately after the official announcement of BRI, Japan quite explicitly scaled-up its involvement, both in terms of finance and geography. As Amelia Duggan noted, that in order to counter BRI Japan is pursuing infrastructure diplomacy that not only provides a financial support but also involves a deeper engagement with and the concerned states. Among all the plans, the two most significant ones are the Partnership of Quality Infrastructure and the Africa-Asia Growth Corridor. The first poses an ideological challenge to China’s infrastructural plans by highlighting the quality assistance, in contrast to China’s exploitation of BRI member-states. The second is a material challenge representing Japan’s extended reach to curtail the Chinese influence. By doing this, Japan basically aims at garnering itself a regional leadership role and along with that strategic leverage.

Most recently, Japan has brought out its Indo-Pacific policy document, evincing clear intentions of moving forward towards greater clarity of vision in so far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned. Its partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, particularly with the Quad nations, along with bettering relations with Russia and China, reflects an approach that looks to avoid conflict and place cooperation at the center of its Indo-Pacific policy. In many ways, the gradual changes in Japan’s regional outlook, notably since PM Abe proposed the ‘confluence’ of oceans, led to its Indo-Pacific strategy as it stands today. 

*** Subhranil Ghosh, 2nd Year of Masters Degree Programme in Political Science with Specialization in International Relations, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University ***

*** Sreemoyee Majumder, 2nd Year of Masters Degree Programme in Political Science with Specialization in International Relations, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University ***