Japan and emerging Indo-Pacific


On January 8-10, 2019, the international forum Raisina Dialogue, dedicated to the Indo-Pacific region issues, was held in New Delhi. Representatives from China, Russia, US, Japan, Australia, Iran, as well as from NATO member states, took part in the forum. One of the central themes was a formation of security dialogue between Japan, the United States, Australia and India—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad.

In2007,Shinzo Abe expressed the idea about a four-sided format of interaction in the Indo-Pacific region; at the same time, the term Indo-Pacific began to be used more frequently. What has been changed in Japan`s security policy since then and how has the geopolitical landscape changed?

Indo-Pacific region: new reality

There are some preconditions for more broad use of term “Indo-Pacific”, that show geoeconomic and geopolitical changes in the international arena at the beginning of the 21st century: growth of trade carried by sea; security challenges to the loaded sea routes connecting the Indian Ocean and the western part of the Pacific Ocean; growing influence of India and China in regional economic and military-political dimensions; emerging network links between remote countries beyond the geographical boundaries of Asia-Pacific; development of the institutional structure of the Asia-Pacific region and increased number of countries participating in the regional platforms at the expense of non-regional actors, such as India (ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asian Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministers +).

In the 2007 article «Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan cooperation” Gurpreet S. Khurana, Executive Director of the National Maritime Foundation in India, discusses the Indo-Pacific region, interconnected by maritime communications, and justifies the need for cooperation between Japan and India to protect sea routes. The same year in August Shinzo Abe in his speech at the Parliament of the Republic of India stressed the interconnection between the Indian and Pacific oceans and importance of stability there as a guarantee of Asia`s prosperity.

In 2012 Shinzo Abe rose the idea of the Quad again. And that time the international environment turned to be more favorable and receptive to the idea of quadrilateral cooperation: two years earlier the situation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands had escalated; Beijing’s policy of expanding its military presence on the seas as well as military infrastructure on the artificial islands in the South-China Sea become increasingly disturbing to the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. By that time, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the importance of the Indo-Pacific basin and necessity to ensure its security, president Barack Obama underlined the great potential of Asia-Pacific and US`s presence there as its foreign policy priority; then in 2012 America`s concept of “Pivot to Asia” was revealed.

In addition to Shinzo Abe personal ambitions to make Japan a “normal” country and influential actor in the international arena, by removing postwar restrictions related to the possibility of having an army, the idea of Indo-Pacific region and new mechanisms of cooperation is an opportunity to show to the international community Japan`s active policy. One more incentive for Tokyo`s revitalization in the Indo-Pacific direction is quite unpredictable policy of the current US President D. Trump.

Japan`s National Security Strategy update

It should be said that during the premiership of Shinzo Abe, several policy documents were adopted, replacing those assumed in the 20th century, and several reforms were carried out aimed at lifting post-war restrictions. Changes in the region regularly get fixed in the annually updated Diplomatic Bluebook and White Paper on Defense, which state that Japan’s defense capabilities are growing in response to existing and emerging security challenges in the region and the world. They also spell out practical steps to strengthen the country’s defense. Under Shinzo Abe, the term “proactive pacifism” has started to be used in official documents to emphasize new tendency in state`s external policy.

These steps made it possible for Japan`s Self-Defense Forces(JSDF) to turn intone of the most technologically advanced and modernized armies at least in Asia-Pacific. But its combat experience limited to the participation in peacekeeping operations and military exercises. This implies that Japan`s military would not be able to defend Japan along in the case of full-fledged military conflicts (if any) without the US standing behind the JSDF.

The actual state of affairs gives the possibility for the current cabinet to take steps for further modernization and strengthening of the SDF. Thus, a situation, when the real state of the SDF does not coincide with what is written in the country’s constitution, makes it possible to promote the idea of ​​revising Article 9 to bring the document into conformity with reality. One of the last steps in the modernization of the SDF was the decision to transform the helicopter destroyer JS Izumo into a full-fledged aircraft carrier. This means further, qualitative and quantitative, development of naval self-defense forces — aircraft carriers does not act alone, but as part of a carrier battle group.

Japan-Russia relations and Indo-Pacific narrative

As one of the most noticeable signs of intensification of Tokyo’s foreign policy, it is necessary to note new trends in Japan-Russia relations. As Russian experts note, inability to rely further on Washington entirely in defense matters, “the deterioration of the regional situation in East Asia, connected with the situation on the Korean Peninsula, the emergence of gray zone challenges in the East China and South China Seas, as well as China`s active offensive policy as a whole, in 2014–2017 come to an unacceptable level for Tokyo”. Together, these factors have prompted Tokyo to go closer to Russia, to look for ways of development of bilateral political relations through the intensification of economic cooperation.

Two factors should be marked. Firstly, overall, Japan’s approach towards Russia is in harmony with its will to conduct a fully independent foreign policy without regard to its “overseas big brother`s” advice. And secondly, it allowed Tokyo to start negotiations on a peace treaty and two islands of the Kuril chain, which for Abe moved from the “professional” dimension to the “personal” one. At that, the realization of the first point, — a peace treaty signing seems much more realistic, then islands transferring.

An irritating factor for Moscow is the close military-political cooperation between Washington and Tokyo, which in practical terms means military-technical cooperation. One of the latest demonstrations is Tokyo’s decision to deploy Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Japan in 2025, which, along with the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, is viewed in Moscow as a development of the global America`s missile defense system.Presumably, realization of the Quad initiative will mean intensification of Japan-US cooperation.

How could Japan-Russia bilateral relations fit into the emerging geopolitical construct of the Indo-Pacific region? Abe will have to make a lot of effort not to lose the progress in relations with Russia, especially taking into account imminent expiration of his term as a prime-minister.

Instead of conclusion

In general, Shinzo Abe faces two difficult years before the end of his term as a prime minister: complicated geopolitical landscape in the region, more assertive China in economic and military dimensions, rise of military spending in the region, search for solution of the issue with a peace treaty with Russia (by intensifying efforts in this direction, Abe actually cut off the way to retreat, now in order not to “lose face”, he will have exhausting negotiations, that unlikely will lead to any advance).

In conditions of unpromising settling of the “territorial issue” with Russia in Japan`s way, potential growth of tension in relations with China, caused by its military-political activity, the almost complete exclusion of Japan from the Korean negotiation process, it only remains to make efforts to achieve a great success in economic sphere internally and in the international arena in order to shift Japanese society attention to success stories.

Such a success (albeit a large-scale, but less practical and tangible for Japanese society) could be the Quad as an institutional structure of the emerging Indo-Pacific. But for this, Tokyo needs to offer such principles and mechanisms of interaction through the Quad, which would satisfy the other three participants of the format, would not provoke negative reaction of Russia and China, who will never be a part of the Quad, and which would not exclude ASEAN, whose “centrality” in regional negotiation processes could become questionable.

Darya Gribkova
Darya Gribkova
PICREADI (Creative Diplomacy) project coordinator; Higher School of Economics, Moscow


Taiwan 2024 Election: Militarization or Development

Taiwan’s presidential elections will be held on January 13,...

The Political Dynamics Between the Establishment and Anti-establishment

Many of those who closely monitor the presidential election...

Ukraine’s new ‘enemy’ – war fatigue in the West

America has become one of Ukraine’s greatest worries. Its...

Why West fears Trump’s return but the rest of the world does not

Western liberals are having nightmares about Donald Trump, notes...