Japan and the Indo-Pacific: from strategy to vision

‘Indo-Pacific’ has now become a catchphrase of the times, a reference point in discussing regional politics and security. It is not clear, however, that there’s widespread agreement in the region on its scope or its role vis-à-vis a rising China in general and its Belt and Road Initiative in particular.

At some point in 2018, the Japanese government stopped calling the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ a strategy and relabelled it as a vision.

In mid-2019, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs summarised the principles of the vision under three domains:

  • promotion and establishment of the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade
  • pursuit of economic prosperity (by improving connectivity in three areas: physical connectivity through quality infrastructure; people-to-people connectivity through education, training and friendship; and institutional connectivity through harmonisation and common rules on matters such as free trade)
  • commitment to peace and stability (through capacity-building, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, anti-piracy, counterterrorism, non-proliferation and peacekeeping operations). 

Thus, the Japanese vision has distilled into a virtual rebranding of the long-held Japanese regional policies that have evolved during the three decades since the end of the Cold War. These regional policies have emphasised the principle of multilateralism with a view to creating a rule-based and non-exclusive regional order by promoting relations of functional cooperation with primarily, if not exclusively, ASEAN and its member states.

Japan’s decision to rename the strategy as a vision coincided with the warming up of Japan’s relations with China. This was no accident. The main purpose behind the recasting was to signal Japan’s interest in improving relations with China, an objective that President Xi Jinping shared after consolidating his position in the Chinese power structure.

In October 2018, Shinzo Abe paid an official visit to China for the first time in seven years as Japanese prime minister. Abe said, ‘I want to start a new era for Japan and China with Mr Xi’, and Xi in turn told Abe that the bilateral relationship was now ‘back to a normal track’.

Even setting aside China’s assertive claims in the East and South China Seas, the bilateral relationship between Japan and China remains contentious and awkward.

It appears, however, that these contentious issues are being swept under the rug for the time being by the leaders in Tokyo and Beijing. This is because they have bigger tensions and issues with the United States, mostly related to economic and trade negotiations.

Since these frictions aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, the momentum of improvement in relations between Japan and China is also likely to be sustained for some time.

Somewhat in contrast to Japan–China relations, Japan’s relations with South Korea have been trapped in a downward spiral during the past few years. Quite ironically, the agreement on the issue of the Japanese army’s use of ‘comfort women’ before and during World War II, announced in December 2015 by the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea, turned out to be the trigger for a vicious cycle in the relationship between the Abe administration and that of Moon Jae-in.

President Park Geun-hye was impeached by the Constitutional Court in March 2017 and removed from office. Upon winning the election and ascending to the presidency in May 2017, Moon virtually delegitimised the comfort women agreement. The implementation of the agreement has been suspended and the entire framework is in limbo.

To make things worse, in October 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japan’s Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal had to pay compensation to South Korean workers for forced labour during the war.

The Abe administration contends that the supreme court’s ruling is in violation of the 1965 agreement on the settlement of problems concerning property and claims, which stipulates that such claims between the two governments and their nationals are ‘settled completely and finally’. Tokyo is thus claiming that Seoul is responsible for correcting the inconsistency between the court ruling and the diplomatic agreement.

While the principle of separation of powers is important for any democracy, the Japanese argument goes, the same principle should oblige the executive branch to take independent measures on the basis of the agreements between the two governments.

Irritated by the lack of response from the South Korean side for some time, Japan took steps in July 2019 to remove South Korea from its list of ‘white countries’ that receive preferential treatment to facilitate trade.

South Korea promptly reciprocated this action and then, in August, announced its decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Act (GSOMIA), thus extending the friction into the domain of security and defence and the endemic tensions with North Korea. Inevitably, this fuelled nationalistic sentiments and rekindled bad memories, compounding the difficulty of recovering the ground lost.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this deepening vicious cycle, a few attempts were made towards the end of 2019 to keep the windows of dialogue open between the leaders.

Then South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon visited Japan in October to attend Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony. Lee met with Abe and handed over a letter from Moon.

The meeting was the highest-level dialogue since tensions flared up after South Korea’s Supreme Court ruling in October 2018.

Then, on 4 November in Bangkok, despite earlier speculation that Abe might refuse to meet with Moon during the annual ASEAN-related leaders’ meetings, they spoke with each other for about 10 minutes, reportedly in a friendly manner.

On the same day, National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang visited Japan, and announced his plan to introduce a bill to the South Korean National Assembly to establish a fund (out of donations from both Japanese and South Korean firms as well as their citizens) with which to compensate the South Korean victims of forced labour during the colonial period.

Another slightly positive development was that Seoul suspended the decision to terminate GSOMIA a few hours before it was to lapse on 22 November, apparently due to strong pressure from Washington.

Despite these somewhat promising moves, Abe’s fundamental stance that the ball is in the South Korean court appears quite unshakable. It is hard to see where the basis for a solution might be found.