With the resignation of Prime Minister Abe, the future of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy has been called into question. Abe was indeed one of the key architects of this vision and he devoted enormous energy to flesh it out. For sure, his successor, Suga Yoshihide, will have his hands full with domestic issues, from tackling the COVID-related economic crisis to implementing daunting structural reforms. Moreover, as Suga is lacking diplomatic experience, a risk was to see Japan becoming less committed on the international stage.
However, for many reasons, the Indo-Pacific strategy (or vision) is very much likely to endure. Prime Minister Suga has already promised continuity and his first instructions to the Foreign Minister Motegi were to strengthen the Japan-US alliance and steadily implement the 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy' (FOIP). A number of coordinated moves confirmed that Suga’s administration will pursue the expanding strategic cooperation with like-minded partners in the region. At the start of October, the Foreign Minister Motegi visited Europe, emphasizing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific with key partners such as France and Germany. Japan will also host a ministerial Quadrilateral meeting on October 6 with the US, India and Australia, taking advantage of the Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit to Tokyo. Finally, it was announced that Suga’s first overseas travel later that month will bring him to Vietnam and Indonesia, in a move to demonstrate ASEAN’s centrality in Japan’s Indo-Pacific vision.
Since Prime Minister Abe unveiled FOIP in 2016, it has indeed become a key feature of Japan’s foreign policy. More importantly, FOIP has deeper ramifications, as an updated, maritime version of the 2007 Arc of Freedom and Prosperity launched under the first Abe mandate. Even if the rhetoric of the Arc soon disappeared from the political discourse, the underlying idea to team up with like-minded Asian partners to uphold liberal order and balance China continued to serve as a bedrock of Japan’s foreign policy, even under the alternance of the Democratic Party of Japan (2009-2012). As Tomohiko Satake also points out, FOIP not only serves to counterbalance China by offering an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, but it also provides visibility and coherence to development cooperation projects Japan has been conducted in the region for a long time. The Indo-Pacific vision is also an attractive strategic narrative that was endorsed – with some variations – by a number of key partners, beginning with the US, but also India, Australia, ASEAN, France and even Germany. This highlights a great diplomatic success for Japan, a country that is traditionally not seen as a proactive leader on the international scene. This also means that Tokyo should live up to the expectations he created as a supporter of regional stability. As the Indo-Pacific narrative is gaining momentum around the world, it is unlikely that Japan retreat from it. Finally, routine cooperation and consultation with main partners have been institutionalized through the Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad), which makes the continuation of the Indo-Pacific policy easier.
If Suga is thus likely to pursue this approach, he might also be willing to put his own stamp on it. Indeed, a strategy that matured for more than 10 years, Japan’s Indo-Pacific approach is polymorphic, multilayered and evolutive. Suga has shown a distinct interest in issues related to economic security and he could well influence FOIP by advancing the regional cooperation in this field. Already this spring, the Japanese government adopted a 2.2 billion dollars subvention to assist its companies to move out of China back to Japan or to diversify to other Asian countries, as the COVID crisis pointed to the risks of overdependence on a single partner. A few days later, an newly-minted economic division was set up within the National Security Secretariat with the objective of developing a strategic economic and industrial policy. Finally, early September, a trilateral Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) was launched between Japan, India and Australia, on Tokyo’s proposal. The reorganization of the global and regional supply chains to hedge risks, as stability is being rocked by a worsened US-China rivalry and multiple attempts at economic decoupling, may well be a promising area for Japan to expand cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners. Suga has also notoriously been keen to enter Free Trade agreements both to push domestic reforms and to uphold a free and fair international trade environment. Japan is thus likely to pursue new deals with the UK and push for the conclusion of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as well as the expansion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CP-TPP).
Another area in which Suga might be interested to advance the Indo-Pacific agenda is cyber-security and digital governance. Japan has already been active, helping to build ASEAN countries’ cybersecurity capabilities, through a dedicated Center launched in Thailand in 2019, or boosting the digital and trade integration of Southeast Asia through blockchain technology. Domestically, Suga has decided to set up a Digital Agency to accelerate the digital transformation of Japanese administration, business and society. At the international level, digitalization is also a key challenge in the Indo-Pacific area, and Japan is well-placed to contribute to the digital commerce and regulation. Contribute to digital, soft infrastructures might also be a less expensive way to contribute to regional connectivity, as the Japanese economy is severely affected by the COVID-related crisis.
Finally, Suga is a pragmatist and he will also take utmost care not to antagonize Beijing but achieve a delicate balancing act between shaping a favorable Indo-Pacific order and maintain functional relations with Japan’s first economic partner at a time of unprecedented recession.
If Suga does not seem to carry a grand vision for his country, he is well known for his skillful handling of the bureaucracy. His primary focus is to break down administrative silos to ensure a more efficient policymaking. This could well be a very precious skill to implement a whole-of-government approach such as Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy. A key question in terms of timing is whether Prime Minister Suga will seek to call an early election in the next months. A victory after a snap election would provide him with enough legitimacy and time to implement a broader agenda. Otherwise, he would have no choice but to act as a caretaker until next general elections scheduled in September 2021.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.