Tokyo's "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" (FOIP) concept, Tokyo claims, has taken shape and is turning from a concept into a concrete strategy jointly implemented by Japan, the U.S., India and Australia. But not so fast. And that not only because U.S. President Trump could endorse and cheer the concept in a morning tweet and dismiss it as irrelevant in the evening, but also because coordinated and institutionalized security cooperation between the four countries in the Indo-Pacific region has yet a long way to go to be referred as such.
To be sure, Japan cannot be accused of not trying and investing resources into what it wants its version of the FOIP to stand for. Although Tokyo obviously does not admit to that, the FOIP promoted by Tokyo is aimed at becoming a competitor to Beijing’s 'Belt and Road Initiative' (BRI), enabling Tokyo to re-gain some of the economic and political clout it has lost over countries in East and Southeast Asia since Beijing announced the BRI in 2013. The main goal of Japan’s FOIP is to promote connectivity between Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The strategy therefore entails the promotion and expansion of its trade ties and infrastructure investments. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not by coincidence therefore chose the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in August 2016 to explain to a number of potential African recipient countries how they could benefit from Tokyo's plans to enter into the long overdue competition with China's BRI. Critics of Japan's FOIP concept have pointed out that Tokyo's economic FOIP focus is not necessarily complementary with the so-called "Quadrilateral Security Dialogue" (Quad), the Indo-Pacific security dialogue between Japan, Australia, India, and the United States. However, that is not necessarily a problem (at all) as Japan’s FOIP and the Japanese-Indian-Australian-U.S. cooperation in the areas of maritime security, terrorism and freedom of navigation can and does take place in parallel.
Indeed, it does not matter that the four countries have different priorities as regards the focus of how and what to cooperate on in the Indo-Pacific region. In the recent past – the last time in November when the four countries held talks on a rules and norm-based order in the region, freedom of navigation, overflight rights, the rule of international connectivity and maritime security – it emerged that they have different priorities. While Japan and India – for obvious reasons related to Chinese territorial and maritime policies in the region – emphasise issues such as freedom of navigation, respect for and compliance with international law and maritime security, the U.S. and Australia emphasise military security cooperation as the core of the concept. From a geopolitical and geo-strategic point of view, the message is that four powerful countries team up to increase cooperation to challenge and deter very assertive, at times aggressive, Chinese policies related to territorial policies and claims, freedom of navigation.
Tokyo has been and is continuing to put the money where its mouth is. In May 2015, e.g. Japan announced that it would provide $100 billion to the Asian Development Bank for the development of what was referred to as 'quality infrastructure' in Asia. East and South Asian countries received 61.2% of Japanese Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) in 2016 and they will continue to receive a similar (if not more) percentage of overall Japanese ODA in the years ahead.
Tokyo is obviously well aware that Beijing smells containment and conspiracy in Tokyo’s alternative to the BRI and its plans to increase security cooperation with the U.S., India and Australia. So what? Although Beijing plays the victim of an alleged Japanese-Indian-Australian-U.S. containment, Chinese policymakers had to expect a reaction to its very assertive and aggressive regional policies in general and policies related to territorial claims in the East and South China Seas in particular. China is a realist power and is certainly able to understand fair and/or unfair game of geo-economic, geo-political and geo-strategic competition and/or confrontation. None of this is automatically leading to the inevitable (military) confrontation with China over disputed territories, non-compliance with international or a rules-based regional/international order but the above-mentioned four countries planning to increase cooperation in a broad range of areas is sending a clear message to Beijing: there is multilateral opposition against Chinese attempts to impose its ideas of regional and global governance onto regions and countries hungry for Chinese cash infusions and investments. And Tokyo certainly still has deep enough pockets to enter into competition with China in many countries Beijing has already invested heavily into.
However, Tokyo has realised that economic support and the expansion of trade ties in the region is not enough to present itself as credible actor charged with the mission to uphold a regional order based on rules and norms and the compliance with international law. Tokyo has e.g. over recent years invested into the strengthening of capacities of the coast guards of various Southeast Asian countries.
Proponents of how to contain Chinese political and military hegemony ambitions urge the four countries to institutionalize security in the 'Quad' framework and seek further cooperation with such countries as Vietnam, Indonesia and South Korea. That is certainly an ambitious undertaking and would further confirm China's image of being the 'bad guy' and 'odd-man out' in the region. The level of sympathy for Chinese "victimhood" antics, however, is very limited in and beyond the region.