Examining Japan’s history and current engagement in the Indo-Pacific region

04 Nov 2019
By Isabella Leunig
Examining Japan’s history and current engagement in the Indo-Pacific region
The recent special report overseen by Perth USAsia Centre Senior Analyst Kyle Springer, Implementing the Indo-Pacific: Japan’s region-building initiatives examines Japan’s history and current engagement in the Indo-Pacific region and in the wider international sphere. Drawing on the expertise of established and emerging authors across the Indo-Pacific, the report answers important questions and provides new perspectives on plans for regional engagement.    
Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific
Japan's Free and Open Indo Pacific strategy (FOIP) displays a desire for greater engagement focussed on maintaining the international rules-based order. This order has facilitated rapid economic change and development, with an emphasis on liberal democratic values, respect for sovereignty, stability and peace, and the pursuit of economic prosperity.  This ambitious plan has provided strategic meaning for Japan’s foreign policy in Asia, allowing for further clarification on Japan’s goals for the Indo-Pacific region.   
As articulated by Priya Chacko, Jagannath P. Panda and Trissia Wijaya, Japan has a number of important strategic partnerships within the Indo-Pacific, two worth particular emphasis are India and Indonesia. The cultivation of these strategic partnerships signifies Japan's desire to reduce economic dependence on China, diversify its trading partners and manage rising militarisation and an uncertain security environment.
Within recent years, South Asia, including India, has received USD52 billion from Japan's Official Development Assistance (ODA). Japan’s ODA program funds large infrastructure projects such as the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and the Delhi Metro. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ambitious politics resonate with Shinzo Abe's hopes for Japan's future. This has made India a partner of choice for Japan's economic and strategic efforts. It is likely that this relationship will continue to develop, and will play a significant role in regional geopolitics.   
Both India and Japan have an ASEAN centred vision for Indo-Pacific regionalisation, aligning well to Indonesia's preference for collaboration within the region. Japan and Indonesia's long bilateral partnership has long included foreign investment and economic partnership. Their 'true friendship' has withstood Indonesia's fluctuating political and economic landscape. Both governments have made recent efforts to institutionalise government-business partnerships, championing infrastructure developments such as the Jakarta Metro and three multipurpose dams known as “3K”. A concentration of Japanese ODA in Indonesia assisted the high-speed growth of the Indonesian economy, driving the nation’s rise in the international order.  Furthermore, the strategic relationship between Japan and Indonesia will become more significant due to China’s increasing military presence in the South China Sea, the maritime zone through which the trade routes important for their economic partnership pass.  
Challenges Faced by Japan
Japan’s FOIP strategy hasn’t always been met with enthusiasm. In fact, ASEAN was cautious of the strategy at first, viewing it as an attempt to contain China and its ever-growing international influence.  As highlighted by Kei Koga in his chapter, despite ongoing assurances from Japan that it is not an effort to contain China and that FOIP is a ‘non-exclusive concept’, ASEAN has nonetheless been reluctant to embrace the strategy. This is partly because Japan is a U.S. treaty ally and the tough stance the Trump Administration has taken on China, particularly in the economic sphere.  
Response to the Evolving Strategic Environment
As referenced by Tomohiko Satake and Sheila A. Smith, the Indo-Pacific region has experienced increased military activity. The militarisation of artificial islands in the South China Sea and the ongoing tensions on the Korean Peninsula has contributed to an uncertain security environment and put pressure on Japan’s pacifist constitution, which limits the role of its Self-Defense Forces. This has prompted a shift under Prime Minister Abe to expand the scope of Japan’s area of security interest. Bolstered by the FOIP strategy, Japan reframed their constitution to allow for 'collective self-defense'. Due to a number of factors, including U.S. President Donald Trump's approach to Indo-Pacific security, Japan has a new impetus to seek out new strategic partners in the region.
The current security environment has prompted Japan and Australia to work together to achieve the goals set out in FOIP, which are also closely aligned with Australian interests.  It is here that the bilateral relationship begins to resemble a ‘quasi-alliance’. Both countries have attempted to enhance their defence, and although a formal alliance between the two nations is unlikely, their bilateral relationship will continue to incorporate more defence cooperation.   
This special report published by the Perth USAsia Centre provides an analysis on the significant and evolving role Japan plays in the Indo-Pacific. The report offers interesting examination of the strategic partnerships Japan has formed and emphasizes the essential role these partnerships will continue to have as new and existing Indo-Pacific powers consolidate and expand their influence.  


Isabella Leunig
Isabella Leunig
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