Is Japan Ready for the Quad? Opportunities and Challenges for Tokyo in a Changing Indo-Pacific


Editor’s Note: This is the sixteenth installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.

On Aug. 22, 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke in front of the Indian Parliament and articulated a vision for the Indo-Pacific region. He spoke of a “confluence of the two seas,” seeking to draw a strategic link between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Abe posited that Japan and India had a shared responsibility, as maritime nations located at the opposite edges of the “two seas,” to ensure the maintenance of peace and prosperity anchored by democratic principles.

Ten years later, diplomats from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States met in Manila for an exploratory meeting of the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. Consultation on the Indo-Pacific, more commonly known as the Quad. The officials discussed the prospects for cooperation in such areas as upholding the international order based on rules like freedom of navigation and overflight, respect for international law, peaceful resolution of disputes, increasing connectivity, counter-terrorism, maritime security, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.

The Quad meeting was, in part, a natural result of the Trump administration’s effort to promote the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” From a Japanese perspective, however, it was effectively a revival of the concept Abe proposed during his first term as prime minister in 2006 and 2007.

As the Quad concept seems now to be regaining traction, Japan has a significant opportunity to leverage not only its already close alliance with the United States, but also its deepening security ties with Australia and India —to ultimately play a larger role in the region. However, Japan faces several political and geopolitical limitations on participating in a collective security arrangement that goes beyond its alliance with the United States. It remains to be seen whether these constraints will prevent Japan from taking full advantage of the revived Quad.

The “Confluence of the Two Seas”

Abe demonstrated his strong interest in the coalition of democracies when he became prime minister in 2006. Indeed, his interest in seeing Japan reach out to other democracies around the world preceded him assuming the premiership. In his book Utsukushii Kuni-e (Toward a Beautiful Country), published in 2006, Abe discussed the importance of Japan conducting diplomacy anchored by universal values. It is also in this book where he makes the first reference to security cooperation between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia — the cooperative framework that exemplifies his vision of a coalition of democracies.

When Abe became prime minister the same year, he sought to makes these ideas the operating principles for his government’s foreign policy. One of his government’s first attempts to translate Abe’s vision into reality was made by then-Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who unveiled the concept of the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” in one of his first speeches as foreign minister in November 2006. In that speech, Aso spoke of the Abe government’s interest in “value-oriented diplomacy and Japan’s commitment to supporting countries that uphold democratic values on the Eurasian continent.

At the time Aso and Abe were articulating their visions, Japan had begun to see increasing efforts by Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels to assert China’s sovereignty claims in the East China Sea. China’s air force also began accelerating its incursions into the airspace over the East China Sea. In response, Japan had been trying to “internationalize” Chinese behavior by arguing that non-Chinese stakeholders in the South China Sea faced similar challenges to those Japan was facing in the East China Sea.  Abe’s speech in the Indian parliament was anchored in his belief that the coalition of democracies should function as the defender of universal values. In the context of the Indo-Pacific region, the speech rested on the notion that the Pacific and Indian Ocean should be considered one big theater symbolizing the importance of free access to the global commons.

However, the “confluence of the two seas” concept lost traction after Abe left office in 2007. Although his successors continued to support further bilateral cooperation with India and Australia, they were not as interested in the Quad-like concept.

When Abe returned to power in 2012, he expressed his renewed commitment in an article for Project Syndicate. Entitled “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” the piece reiterated Abe’s belief that peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are “inseparable,” and reaffirmed Tokyo’s commitment to  preserving freedom of the commons in both regions. “Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. state of Hawaii form a diamond,” he argued, “to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.” Abe declared his intention to “invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond.”

Intensifying Strategic Cooperation in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ 

Since then, Japan has been taking measures to do precisely that. Under the principle of “Proactive Contribution to International Peace” outlined in its 2013 National Security Strategy, Japan has moved to enhance its security relationships — both bilateral and collective — with the three countries in the “Security Diamond.” In April 2014, Abe revised Japan’s long-standing policy of armed exports, which had prohibited Japanese industry from exporting weapons and related technologies abroad. Now, Japanese firms can engage with foreign partners to develop and export defense equipment more easily. This was particularly important for relations with India and Australia, as Japan now has a bilateral agreement on defense technology cooperation with each country. (Japan signed the agreement on defense technology transfer with Australia in July 2014, and with India in December 2015.)

In April 2015, Japan and the United States completed the revision of their bilateral defense guidelines for the first time in almost 20 years. First set in 1976, the U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation initially defined the division of roles between the U.S. military and the Japan Self-Defense Forces. The guidelines were revised in 1997 to expand the geographical area of U.S.-Japan military-to-military cooperation to include potential emergencies in Northeast Asia. The 2015 revision took one step further, setting forth guidelines for the two militaries to cooperate not only in defense of Japan and regional contingencies, but also outside Japan’s immediate vicinity. To improve the day-to-day bilateral coordination in the context of the Defense Guidelines, Japan and the United States also established the Alliance Coordination Mechanism.

Although there was consistent support for a stronger Japan-Australia relationship prior to Abe’s return, efforts to institutionalize the relationship have accelerated under his watch, with the Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreement, the Information Security Agreement, the agreement on the transfer of defense equipment and technology, and the Economic Partnership Agreement — all enacted in the last six years. Japan has continued to strengthen the bilateral relationship with India as well, with the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, Information Security Agreement, and the agreement to transfer defense equipment and technology all put in place over the last seven years.

Despite persistent questions about how deep the security cooperation with Australia should go, Japan believes it has a “special strategic partnership” with Australia, and a “special strategic and global partnership” with India. These ties are based in part on shared values like democracy, free and open trade, and respect for international norms. More importantly, both countries, in stark contrast with South Korea, subscribe to the balance of power in Asia and support Japan’s effort to expand its role in regional security.

Furthermore, as China’s assertion of its sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas becomes increasingly aggressive, the strategic importance of Japan’s relationship with India and Australia has grown considerably. India has become a particularly important partner, given its land-border issues with China and increasing wariness of China’s reach into the Indian Ocean. New Delhi has sought to promote a narrative similar to Abe’s: that maintaining the international order — underwritten by the rule of law and freedom of navigation — in the Indo-Pacific is critical to global security and prosperity, and no country should be allowed to change the status quo through force. During Abe’s visit to India in September 2017, he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized the two countries’ potential to achieve a “free, open and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region.

Japan also has paid greater attention to trilateral relations: U.S.-Japan-Australia and U.S.-Japan-India.  These two trilateral frameworks precede the “quad” by at least a decade, and have offered opportunities for semi-regular diplomatic consultation. But in the last several years, military-to-military cooperation has accelerated. Notably, the three countries held a trilateral joint naval exercise under the umbrella of U.S.-India Malabar in July, followed by one  in the Sea of Japan in November. The location of the latter exercise suggested that India, less concerned by the potential reaction from China, has taken a step forward in aligning itself with the United States and Japan. Still, Japan’s military-to-military cooperation with these countries so far has not gone beyond joint exercises and cooperation in non-combatant operations such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

What Revived the “Quad”?

The initial signs of the Quad’s revival present a major opportunity for Abe to materialize what he first envisioned almost a decade ago — a collaborative security partnership with the United States and its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. Two major factors that have changed since Abe first outlined his vision will facilitate his efforts to promote the Quad today.

First is the rapid and assertive ascendance of China. In 2007, China was already on the rise, but there was more optimism about its future path. The United States was trying to ensure that China would emerge as a “responsible stakeholder” by engaging it on the international stage. Both India and Australia were more attracted to the economic potential China offered than concerned about its strategic intentions. These perceptions have largely changed since then, as China has taken a series of actions that explicitly reject the existing international order and pursued elements of an alternate system (at least in Asia). Examples include its aggressive assertion of its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and on disputed borders, its frequent use of economic coercion and economic espionage, and its “predatory” investments under the guise of the Belt and Road initiative — like the joint venture between China’ state-owned Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd and the Sri Lankan government. The Quad countries are more concerned today about China’s long-term intentions, and have a greater interest in investing in efforts to uphold the existing liberal international order.

Moreover, there is greater concern about America’s ability to continue to play a leading role in safeguarding this order. When Abe first proposed the “quad” concept, there was still a consensus that the United States, although preoccupied by its war on terror, was the most powerful nation in the world in terms of military might and otherwise. However, whether the United States is interested in and capable of playing this leading role has been called into question in the last decade. Although the Obama administration tried to reinvigorate U.S. engagement in the region with the “Rebalance to Asia,” doubts persisted about U.S. capacity to lead. The concern was aggravated with the inauguration of the Trump administration and the pronounced “America First” approach, demonstrated by the U.S. withdrawal from several multilateral frameworks, most notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As a result, Japan has witnessed a convergence of interests among itself, Australia, and India around their collective need to uphold the liberal order and ensure the United States, as the anchor of the Quad, continues its engagement in the region. This aligns with Abe’s vision of pursuing partnership among like-minded nations — one firmly anchored in the U.S.-Japan alliance, but that has expanded to include Australia and India.

Japan’s Future Opportunities and Challenges  

How can Abe’s Japan shape the future of Quad cooperation? For one, it may consider exploring opportunities to regularize this cooperation in some areas. Japan has sought through bilateral cooperation with the United States and India to build capacity in Southeast Asian states’ maritime security, such as infrastructure, vessels, Coast Guard training, and coordination mechanisms. In addition, Australia has extensive experience in maritime capacity building in South Pacific. Building upon this existing know-how, Japan could play a leading coordinating role among the four countries to design future maritime capacity-building efforts in the Indo-Pacific region. Further, although creating a Quad-led investment mechanism to counter the Belt and Road initiative may be a bridge too far, Japan could still utilize the existing bilateral coordination mechanisms to promote development assistance in Southeast and South Asia. This could involve developing a “quad” consultation to identify how to maximize the effectiveness of different streams of development assistance.

Looking ahead, however, Japan will face challenges in taking advantage of such opportunities.

In the area of security cooperation, for example, Japan needs to think about what its armed forces will actually be able to do with the other three countries in the “quad” beyond occasional joint exercises and training. There is strong political resistance to the idea of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (named as such when it was established in 1954 to demonstrate a purely defensive nature) engaging in robust activities outside the country other than humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, neither of which are politically controversial. This opposition remains despite the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution in 2014 and the Peace and Security Legislation that supposedly expanded the scope of the activities the JSDF would be authorized to undertake outside Japan. Even if Abe wants to bring Japan’s defense cooperation with the “quad” countries beyond what it is already doing, he may be met with considerable domestic resistance.

Japan also needs to think through how Chinese pushback (and/or retaliation) against quadrilateral cooperation might affect each of the four countries’ attitude toward the Quad. The criticism that the framework was anti-Chinese, along with fear of China’s reaction, contributed to the idea’s quick demise after it was first proposed in 2007. While the four countries’ perception of China’s assertiveness have aligned much more closely since then, all partners will nonetheless have to think about how to make the Quad resilient against such pushback. For instance, Japan is leading the effort to conclude an agreement among the so-called “TPP 11” (the countries which would have been the participant in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, minus the United States). Can Japan reach out to India to join “TPP 11” while continuing to search for a face-saving way for the United States to return to the partnership in the future? Can Japan spearhead the Quad effort to balance China’s aggressive investment in South and Southeast Asia? If the United States loses its enthusiasm for the Quad, is Japan ready to step up and work with India and Australia on a regional architecture? Most importantly, will Japan’s own enthusiasm for the Quad outlast Abe’s term in the office?

Abe has many reasons to be happy about the seeming revival of the Quad. But the promising new development will also test his government’s ability to turn his strategic vision into concrete initiatives that demonstrate how the Quad can help realize the vision of the “free and open Indo-Pacific.”


Yuki Tatsumi is Director of the Japan program at the Stimson Center and the author of Lost in Translation? U.S. Defense Innovation and Northeast Asia.