While the term "Indo-Pacific" is still new in Japan’s foreign and security policy discourse, the "free and open Indo-Pacific strategy" has rapidly become an established concept under the government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The vision has a strong set of strategic rationale for Tokyo and there are few in the foreign and security policy community who directly oppose it. Yet, there remain a set of challenges as well. The reality remains that many people have only a vague idea about what the strategy actually means and there does not seem to be a consensus on the extent to which Japan needs to allocate additional security assets and resources to the Indian Ocean.
First of all, the strategic rationale for Tokyo’s embrace of the idea of the "Indo-Pacific" seems obvious. It reflects the increasing level of connectivity between the the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, forcing Tokyo to realise that its security and prosperity are increasingly affected by what happens in the Indian Ocean region. For Japan, it is about expanding its strategic horizon. While it is not designed to be a strategy to contain China, it is equally unhelpful to argue that it has nothing to do with China, given the fact that Beijing’s expanding presence and activities – political and security as well as economic – in the Indian Ocean region are indeed one of the most visible manifestations of the Indo-Pacific connectivity.
Seen from Japan, the Indo-Pacific region is essentially a maritime domain and it is natural that Tokyo focuses on maritime security, including upholding fundamental principles such as freedom of navigation. Japan's counter-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia can also be put in this context.
Prime Minister Abe has been committed to strengthen the strategic partnership with India as the essential pillar of his Indo-Pacific strategy. His seminal address to the Indian parliament in August 2007 on the "confluence of the two seas," his article on the "democratic security diamond" in December 2012, as well as his “bromance” with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi all demonstrate his consistent commitment to India and Japan's engagement in the region broadly. Under his leadership, there has been a significant increase in Japan-India strategic ties, including Japan’s participation in the annual naval exercise "Malabar", which used to be an India-US bilateral framework.
Trilateral cooperation between Japan, the US and India and between the so-called “Quad”, involving the same three and Australia constitute an important part of Japan’s approach as well. Cooperating with Europe – particularly the European Union, the UK and France – in the form of "Quad plus" in the Indian Ocean region is also on the agenda and Europe's increasing security engagement in the region is something Tokyo greatly appreciates.
Beyond India, another notable aspect of Japan's Indo-Pacific strategy is that it includes its economic, political and security engagement in Africa. Abe actually unveiled his free and open Indo-Pacific strategy in his address to the TICAD (Tokyo International Conference on African Development) summit meeting in August 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya. He declared that "Japan bears the responsibility of fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and making it prosperous."
Yet, the long term success of the strategy cannot be taken for granted. First, for Japan's engagement with India and in the wider region to be viable and sustainable in the long-term, it needs to be substantiated by expanded trade and economic relations. While the volume of Japan’s investment (FDI) to India has increased in recent years, trade in goods has been lackluster, despite the political rhetoric of an India-Japan strategic partnership. It is noteworthy that Japan was India’s only 20th largest export market (2016), behind not only the UK and Germany, but also Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Italy, as well as a host of Asian countries. Without more substantial trade and economic ties, the Japan-India partnership will remain a politically-driven and artificial one.
Second, Tokyo faces the question about the extent to which it can commit to the region in terms of security assets and resources. Put simply, it is about how many Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels it can send to the Indian Ocean for joint exercises or maritime security operations in the coming years. Japan's participation in the Malabar and other exercises with the Indian navy has so far been modest at best – no more than one vessel or two. Due to the fact that the security situation in the immediate vicinity of Japan is deteriorating, Tokyo needs to concentrate, more than ever before, its assets and resources on the tasks of addressing North Korea’s ballistic missile threat and China’s increasing assertiveness in the East China Sea, making it difficult, if not entirely impossible, to expand engagement elsewhere. Many people in Japan, particularly those working on security and defence, are therefore skeptical about additional international engagement.
Despite such serious challenges, the degree to which Japan's security as well as prosperity depend on peace and stability in the broader Indo-Pacific region beyond the country's immediate neighbourhood is set to rise in the years and decades to come. What Tokyo needs, therefore, is to change its mindset, making more people realise the connectivity and understand that the country’s engagement with India and in the Indian Ocean region are part of its vital security interests.