Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Shaping a Hybrid Regional Order


What does Japan want in the Indo-Pacific? It can be tough to tell, because at the moment, Tokyo seems to be pursuing incompatible aims. Japan is trying to check China geopolitically while deepening economic engagement. At the same time, it wants to deepen its strategic coordination with its closest security partners — the United States, Australia, and India — through the Quad, and it also wants to ensure the participation of a maximum number of countries in its Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative.



Japan’s approach in the Indo-Pacific thus ultimately aims at ensuring its strategic autonomy by shaping a favorable regional environment and expanding its diplomatic and security options. This requires a pragmatic approach. While Japan’s priorities are set by China and the United States, Tokyo’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific is necessarily multilayered, from “minilateral” cooperation to a recent emphasis on more multilateral and inclusive initiatives. Japan’s mixed Indo-Pacific approach thus articulates the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral Dialogue with a support for mega trade deals and regional organizations led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as conditional engagement with China. It offers in many ways a preview of the future hybrid regional order in the Indo-Pacific, likely to accommodate a flurry of diversified cooperation formats in a context of growing bipolarization.

Japan’s Strategic Challenges

Hedging against China and keeping the United States engaged in Asia are the key tenets of Japanese strategy. Coping with the rise of China has been the strategic priority of Japan at least since the 2000s. This priority structures Tokyo’s diplomacy and defense policy. Indeed, China’s maritime expansion directly threatens Japanese interests in the East China Sea, with repeated intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, claimed by China under the name “Diaoyu Islands.” In the South China Sea, Beijing’s extensive claims and militarization of islets are perceived as dangerously undermining the rule of law and freedom of navigation. Finally, China is considered as a revisionist power, challenging the post-1945 world order to impose its own standards (through its Belt and Road Initiative, among other schemes).

In response, Japan is implementing a strategy of hedging, with important counterbalancing elements. Internal counterbalancing is achieved through the strengthening of its defense capabilities. External counterbalancing centers on deepening of its alliance with the United States and the expansion of its strategic partnerships. The diversification of its strategic partners first allows Japan to strengthen its hand vis-à-vis China. It also aims to support the maintenance of a multipolar Asia and the balance of power in order to prevent Chinese hegemony. Promoting coordination between partners like Australia and India, and helping Southeast Asian countries to strengthen their maritime capabilities, should help to build up resilience in front of Beijing. Tokyo also strives to ensure functional cooperation with China through a focus on economic cooperation and a commitment to the region’s multilateral institutions.

A second key strategic Japanese objective is to keep the United States engaged in Asia. Indeed, the strengthening of the alliance (to dissuade China) and the maintenance of an international order based on rule of law, free trade, and multilateralism (to shape or constrain China’s attitude) are considered in Tokyo as the only option to ensure its strategic autonomy. President Donald Trump’s chaotic style has only reinforced Japanese concerns about the credibility of the U.S. military commitment to Asian stability and to Japan’s defense. Tokyo is thus seeking to build a network of U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, both to strengthen the current alliance system but also to prevent a U.S. withdrawal. The diversification of its security partners thus allows Japan to guard against a possible U.S. strategic retreat and provides it with a means to eventually influence U.S. decisions. Indeed, Tokyo has been more proactive in defending its own interests and shaping America’s views and deeds in the region. In the longer term, these partnerships may also offer an option for Tokyo to become more autonomous from the United States.

While pursuing these two core strategic objectives, Japan also wants to be acknowledged as a key stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific. To achieve that, it needs to actively contribute to the build-up of the coming regional order by positioning itself as a central player able to provide public goods and help manage both soft and hard security matters in the area.

Japan in a Hybrid Regional Order

The sheer scale of transnational issues that need to be managed in the Indo-Pacific (environmental issues such as the depletion of resources and climate change, natural disasters, maritime security, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cybersecurity, migration) requires multilateral cooperation. At the same time, the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing seems to point toward an increasing bipolarization of the region (if not a new type of Cold War), with a partial decoupling that has already started in the economic and digital sectors. Several countries, reluctant to choose  a side, have aired their concerns and proposed a third way out of a competition. ASEAN has recently issued a consensual statement on its Indo-Pacific outlook, and France is running its own Indo-Pacific strategy aiming to mitigate the negative effects of the Sino-American competition.

As a result, the Indo-Pacific region in the future will consist of a set of complex, fluid, and multilayered features. The Sino-American rivalry will provide a broad structure under which third countries will navigate to garner the benefits and hedge against risks. We are thus likely to see more cooperation develop on a case-by-case basis to tackle specific issues. These ad hoc, inclusive coalitions are already emerging at the international level in the forms of the International Solar Alliance or the Alliance for Multilateralism. On the security front, America’s growing reluctance to commit to its alliances will lead to coalitions and partnerships of a “conditional, task-oriented and transient nature.” The Quad, for example, was originally derived from the experience of the four countries gathering as the “Core Group” to lead the disaster-relief operations in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

These flexible frameworks would allow the participation of China, the United States, both of them, or neither of them, depending on the issue tackled. It would create some breathing room for countries that do not want to be pressured to pick a side and empower the middle powers that will have greater responsibility to build up synergies to allow for legitimate and concrete actions.

In this regard, Japan has a card to play. Very often considered a follower of the United States in diplomatic affairs, Tokyo has been actually adopting a more proactive stance to defend its own interests, even if these are not aligned with those of its ally. Just think about the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, Japan’s relations with Russia, or Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Iran. The new configuration is an opportunity for Japan to play a greater role to shape the regional and international order. Tokyo has already started to adopt a balanced strategy that navigates between multilateral and inclusive initiatives and minilateral partnerships.

Don’t Conflate the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quad

Japan’s approach toward the Indo-Pacific rests on two elements. The first is the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, announced in Kenya in August 2016. An updated, maritime version of the 2007 Arc of Freedom and Prosperity, FOIP takes stock of the economic and strategic integration of the vast area running from the eastern coast of Africa to the South Pacific. Japan’s vision for the region has three pillars: the promotion of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and free trade; the promotion of connectivity through infrastructure to achieve prosperity; and the contribution to peace and security through capacity-building, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and anti-piracy operations. Importantly, FOIP is a flexible and evolutionary geopolitical narrative that offers an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

At the very least, FOIP must provide an alternative choice to countries in the region to broaden their options and to prevent their being locked into a face-off with Beijing. The 2015 Partnership for Quality Infrastructure thus provides $110 billion to be allocated, in cooperation with the Asian Development Bank and over a period of five years, to infrastructure building in Asia. In 2016, the Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure provided $200 billion for financing infrastructure worldwide. While it is impossible for Japan to compete with China on the size of investments, Tokyo is betting on the quality of its offer, and its merits in terms of transparency, ethics, and compliance with social and environmental standards. As a result, FOIP should also build the resilience of the recipient countries and their ability to withstand some Chinese demands that could run counter to their or Japan’s interests (restricted access to ports or special economic zones, for example).

As a result, FOIP has a dual nature. As a geo-economic initiative, it is clearly meant to include as many countries as possible in the area and be presented as a public good. However, as a geostrategic alternative to BRI and part of a counterbalancing approach vis-à-vis China, it is not really compatible with a truly multilateral and inclusive approach.

The second element of Japan’s strategy is the Quad — an informal arrangement between Japan, Australia, India, and the United States. Revived in 2017 on the initiative of the Abe administration, it has been largely conflated with the broader FOIP strategy, though it has a different nature. The Quad is undoubtedly a clearly exclusive and minilateral group of like-minded partners that gathers to discuss and hopefully coordinate on Indo-Pacific affairs. This grouping is partly a result of Japan’s diversification and networking of its security partnerships since 2007. It also derives from Abe’s desire to set up a security diamond between the regional maritime democracies to promote freedom of navigation and check Chinese expansion. The Quad has proved not to be an easy format for cooperation. The Quad 1.0, back in 2007, was abandoned because of concerns it was too provocative vis-à-vis China, which labeled it an “Asian NATO.” The latest version of the Quad (or Quad 2.0), by contrast, has not raised heated protestation from Beijing, because Beijing seems to correctly assess that the four partners have clear differences in their perception of China and have different visions for the future regional order. The absence of a joint statement and the failure to operationalize the Quad suggest that its framework might be a limited concept for advancing security cooperation, rather than an empowering one.

The conflation of the minilateral Quad with FOIP adds confusion about the real nature of Japan’s FOIP, especially as Japanese diplomacy is underlining the “comprehensive, inclusive and transparent” features of the initiative.

An Aspirational Multilateralism Balanced by a Minilateral Necessity

Japan’s broad Indo-Pacific approach relies on multilateralism to shape China’s choices when possible, and increasingly, to try to influence a more unilateralist United States. Accordingly, Japan has pushed for the adoption by the G-20 of a set of norms regarding quality infrastructure — a move that would have direct implications for Chinese BRI’s implementation. Tokyo also took the lead to keep the Trans-Pacific Partnership alive after the U.S. withdrawal. Together with the E.U.-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement concluded in December 2018, the newly renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership set ambitious labor, environmental, and other trade-related standards, in the hopes of encouraging both the United States and China to align on them.

Also, since 2018, the priority for Japan is to have ASEAN countries join the Free and Open Indo-Pacific to ensure its success. As Southeast Asian countries do not want to choose sides between China and the United States, the Japanese geopolitical rhetoric on FOIP has been softened. The “strategy” has been transformed into a milder-sounding “vision,” or a “concept.”. The emphasis is now put on ASEAN centrality, and the inclusive nature of FOIP is clearly underlined. Similarly, the importance of sharing democratic values is now downplayed to accommodate countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar. The focus is put on the respect for rule of law at the international level rather than on the domestic front.

Moreover, Japan has a strong record in engaging with regional ASEAN-led multilateral organizations, enhancing its credibility. For example, Japan has been supporting ASEAN’s cybersecurity abilities with the launching of the Bangkok-based ASEAN-Japan Cybersecurity Capacity Building Centre in September 2018. The multilateral approach is paying off. According to one recent survey, Japan is the most trusted country by opinion leaders in ASEAN.

But the consensus-driven nature of ASEAN limits its mandate to soft power issues. ASEAN-led institutions will not be relevant to address hard security challenges and cooperation. That’s why it makes sense for Japan to keep developing a minilateral network of strategic partners. Working on a web of partners will help to counterbalance China, keep the United States engaged in the region, and promote a division of labor in the large Indo-Pacific area according to the respective capabilities and interests of each player. This will not only  be about Quad partners: A recent joint sailing event, for example, gathered ships from Japan, France, the United States, and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

A Greater Focus on Conditional Engagement with China

As the United States embraces unilateralism and the Sino-American rivalry intensifies, Tokyo is adjusting its posture to maintain its strategic autonomy. Japan is no doubt siding with the United States, primarily because it considers its security alliance with Washington as vital to deter and counter security threats posed by China’s rise. Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, its transactional approach to negotiating a bilateral trade deal, and the launching of a de facto trade war with Beijing are not in Japan’s interests. Therefore, Tokyo has started to promote conditional engagement with a more accommodative Beijing.

In October 2018, Abe, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, announced a new era of bilateral relations, evolving from competition to collaboration. Together, the two countries have promoted economic cooperation in third countries, with 52 infrastructure projects identified for joint development. Japan’s conditional support for BRI opened the way for such progress — Tokyo would consider backing BRI projects if lending practices match international standards, the economic viability of the projects is ensured, and the openness of the funded infrastructure is guaranteed. This move aims at promoting healthy and functional economic engagement that would not be contaminated by fraught political relations. Tokyo also hopes its participation, even symbolic, will contribute to shape to a certain extent the way China is implementing BRI.

Japan is walking a fine line by trying to develop functional security cooperation with China. The two countries set up in May 2018 a Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism to prevent incidents in the East China Sea, even if they remain at odds on the status of the Senkaku Islands, and as China has been stepping up its maritime incursions in Japanese waters. Tokyo also reportedly proposed to Beijing that they establish a “two plus two” meeting between their foreign and defense ministers as a means to deepen mutual trust. Recently, Japan and China conducted their first goodwill drill in eight years to demonstrate efforts toward confidence-building.

Japan’s attempt to reconcile, within its Indo-Pacific approach, conditional engagement with a counterbalancing and deterring posture vis-à-vis China is not without contradictions. In particular, if Tokyo has long experienced “hot economics, cold politics” in its relations with Beijing, the weaponization of economic interdependence and the security implications of new technologies are putting this paradigm under stress. At the end of the day, reaching a modus vivendi with Beijing is a precondition to remain a key stakeholder in the future regional order.

What’s Next?

Going ahead with a carefully balanced Indo-Pacific strategy will not be easy. It will require Japan to more clearly define its national interests, set priorities, and cultivate partners. An open conflict between Beijing and Washington would jeopardize these efforts, and thus the first task for Tokyo is to maintain an approach centered on confidence-building, accommodation, and engagement vis-à-vis the two superpowers.

In the Indo-Pacific, Japan wants to keep its options open. Doing so gives Tokyo freedom to maneuver whether a “cold war” develops between Washington and Beijing, or the two powers clash. This strategy allows for a certain flexibility and should be maintained, unless some major changes in the strategic environment happen. A total retreat of the United States from Asian affairs or a grand bargain between Washington and Beijing over Japan’s national interests would question this paradigm. On the domestic front, Abe is set to leave the stage in the coming years. The advent of a less charismatic and determined leader could undermine Japan’s capacity to act in a proactive manner on the regional and international scene. To maintain its strategic autonomy as much as possible, Japan has to keep close but candid relations with its U.S. ally, stay firm with China while offering room for cooperation, and avoid isolation by putting itself at the center of a network of partners stretching from Australia to India, Southeast Asian countries to Britain and France.



Celine Pajon is Head of Japan Research at the Center for Asian Studies of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), Paris. She analyses Japan’s foreign and defense policy, as well as geostrategic dynamics of the Indo-Pacific area.

Image: White House (Photo by Shealah Craighead)