The year 2020 was filled with geopolitical and geoeconomic changes that represented a major shift in world history, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. presidential election leading the way.
How effectively each nation can control the spread of infections within its own borders is likely to significantly affect the transformation of the global economy and power balance in the post-coronavirus era.
At the center of the international power struggle is the Indo-Pacific region, and it is vital to properly understand the rapidly changing power balance in this region.
In characterizing multilateral relations in the Indo-Pacific region, the most essential factors in its underlying structure are the geopolitical and geoeconomic conflicts between the United States and China.
The U.S. has worked with liberal democracies — namely the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — that share common values to facilitate intelligence-sharing under the “Five Eyes” alliance while also boosting defense cooperation.
And for the U.S., its alliance with Japan is of utmost importance to help stabilize the Indo-Pacific region and maintain its presence there.
China, on the other hand, is strengthening cooperation with Russia for strategic reasons, and is attempting to lead the construction of a regional order on the perimeters of the Eurasian continent through projects such as the Belt and Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Under such circumstances, Japan should conduct strategic and proactive diplomacy.
The Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, advocated by Japan since August 2016, has won wide support from the global community as the nation’s attempt to take the initiative in the region.
It is possibly the first time in 150 years of Japanese diplomatic history that a strategy put forward by Japan has won such widespread support internationally.
In the past century and a half, geopolitical confrontations between continental powers and maritime powers have continued on the perimeters of the Eurasian continent.
While the hegemonic power on the continent has been shifting from the Soviet Union in the Cold War era to China in the 21st century, the maritime hegemony of the British Empire in the 19th century has been replaced by that of the U.S. since the mid-20th century and down to the present day.
This leaves the Korean Peninsula, Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the middle, caught between the two superpowers, where land meets the ocean.
The confrontations in the region have also represented ideological frictions between communism and democracy, which escalated during the Cold War involving the U.S. and Soviet Union into armed conflicts — the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Arab-Israeli wars.
However, the situation has changed significantly since then. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is now regarded as occupying a position that could influence the future of the Indo-Pacific region, although there are some conflicts of interest among its member countries.
ASEAN has now become China’s top trade partner, and Beijing’s relationship with ASEAN affects the future of its economy.
As for Japan, its relationship with ASEAN has gone beyond a bilateral partnership in its significance to become a key factor in building regional order.
ASEAN is one of the most important regions of diplomacy for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration. That is why Suga chose Vietnam, which held the rotating ASEAN chair in 2020, and Indonesia, with the largest population and economy of ASEAN’s members, as the first countries to visit after becoming prime minister.
The relationship between Japan and ASEAN is based on years of trust. According to an opinion poll conducted in ASEAN’s 10 member countries in 2017, 89% of the respondents said they viewed their country’s relations with Japan as “friendly” or “somewhat friendly,” and 91% chose “very reliable” or “somewhat reliable” for how they rated Japan as a friend.
It is notable that 46% chose Japan as a country they consider as an important partner in the future — higher than the 40% that picked China and the 38% who chose the U.S. — indicating their apparent intention to strengthen relations with Japan in the future to keep a balance amid China’s growing influence.
In Japan, Shinzo Abe, the nation’s longest-serving prime minister, stepped down on Sept. 16, with Suga stepping in to replace him.
Having worked as chief Cabinet secretary, Suga intends to basically succeed the Abe administration in terms of diplomatic policies, but two very important moves took place last fall regarding the future of the Indo-Pacific region.
Firstly, the foreign ministers of Japan, the U.S., Australia and India met in Tokyo on Oct. 6 under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the “Quad.” China strongly protested the move, describing it as forming exclusive cliques and targeting third parties.
Secondly, 15 countries, including China, held an online meeting on Nov. 15 and signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement.
While the Quad represents ties between democracies centered around the U.S., RCEP was an outcome that reflected the economic realities of the region centered on China.
How should Japan balance between the two frameworks and cooperate with partners such as ASEAN and Australia? How can the two moves be interpreted within the scope of the ongoing U.S.-China confrontations?
What is important here is the fact that neither Japan, Australia or the members of ASEAN wish for an all-out conflict or decoupling between the U.S. and China.
Economic ties with China are too significant for those countries to break away.
Approaching the U.S.
As the U.S. intensifies its harsh stance against China, it has become all the more important for Japan to present a different approach.
It is not necessarily contradictory for Japan to focus on its alliance with the U.S. and at the same time embrace Indo-Pacific policies that are more inclusive than the U.S. policies, which can win wider support in the region.
Japan should push two important initiatives.
Firstly, the Suga administration, just like the Abe administration before it, must continue to advocate the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and take a leadership role in protecting a free and open international order.
Secondly, based on its relationship of trust with ASEAN, Japan should construct an inclusive, rule-based order that does not exclude any country.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, in phone talks with leaders of Australia, Japan and South Korea — the United States’ closest allies in the region — appeared to introduce a subtle shift in language when he mentioned the Indo-Pacific region.
Instead of using the phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which has been taking root, he described “a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
When a new administration is created in the U.S., it tends to strongly aim at reforming the previous administration’s diplomatic policies. It is not in Japan’s best interests to be overly affected by the policy changes of its ally.
Instead, Japan must carefully explain its fundamental foreign policy doctrines to the Biden administration.
The Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, advocated by Japan, has become established in the global community, winning support from Western nations including France, Germany and the U.K., as well as ASEAN members, Australia, Canada and India.
There is a risk that Biden’s transition team is not aware of the intentions behind Japan’s more inclusive strategy and merely regards it in the same light as the Trump administration’s hard-line approach to China.
It is likely that some foreign policy experts advising Biden deliberately avoided the words “free and open Indo-Pacific,” based on such a misunderstanding in hopes of revising the Trump administration’s foreign policy doctrines.
The Japanese government should work to clear up any such misunderstandings by Biden’s transition team and call on its members to restrain themselves from making excessive changes to policies. That is what the Japanese government has been making efforts toward all along, backed by its close ties with the U.S., so that the country hits the right balance in its policies toward China.
It is not wise to give up on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy just for the sake of trying to respond to the Biden administration’s intentions.
Japan should correct the perception that the strategy was created by the Trump administration and should clearly convey what it has been aiming at through this strategy.
The Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative, based on connectivity and inclusiveness, can become an important foundation to avoiding further U.S.-China conflict.
Correcting mistaken perceptions regarding the initiative and deepening mutual understanding between Japan and the U.S. are essential tasks for the Japan-U.S. alliance in the Suga-Biden era.
Yuichi Hosoya is research director at API and a professor of international politics at Keio University. API Geoeconomic Briefing, provided by the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo, is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.
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