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The Importance of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy as a Foreign Policy Initiative
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Often referred to as American, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy is, in fact, a Japanese foreign policy initiative that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “introduced in 2016 — an idea he has built upon since his first tenure as prime minister.”[1]  As this essay will argue, its main value is in filling the foreign policy vacuum that the Trump administration has created in the Indo-Pacific region.  Indeed, when Michael Green noted that “If there is one major theme in American strategic culture as it has been applied to the Far East over time, it is that the United States will not tolerate any other power- establishing hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific,”[2] he could not have anticipated how rapidly President Donald Trump would shatter the geopolitical edifice that the United States had painstakingly built, commencing in 1783, and ending on January 20, 2017.

The result of America’s actions has cleared the way for China to take its turn at establishing regional hegemonic control.  As one expert argued in Trump’s inaugural year, “More than a mere list of revamped infrastructure projects, [the Belt and Road Initiative] is a grand strategy that advances China’s goal of establishing itself as the preponderant power in Eurasia and a global power, second to none,”[3] thus supplanting in a mere twenty years what we might call the “Brezhinski Doctrine”, that “America's global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained."[4]

President Obama understood the importance of countering China’s hegemonic ambitions, and, as a leading scholar has noted, was planning to use the combination of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to splinter China’s Eurasian strategy.[5] Now, however, with Trump’s consigning these initiatives to the dustbin of history, the U.S. is potentially removing all obstacles from China’s path.  Hence, the value of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy cannot be underestimated.  As the Economist recently commented, in foreign policy the US President “needs a strategy, not just tactics.”[6] It could be argued that Japan has handed him one on a silver platter.  But what exactly is it?

Back to the Beginning: The “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity”

The term “Indo-Pacific” was coined by Gurpreet S. Khurana, a captain in the Indian Navy, in an article that he wrote in July 2007 regarding the importance of cooperation between India and Japan to secure “Pacific and Indian Ocean ‘maritime lifelines,’”[7] vital to, among other things, ensuring access to crude oil and natural gas. The Indo-Pacific concept seems to have immediately resonated with Prime Minister Abe, and on August 22, 2007, in his eloquent speech, entitled “Confluence of the Two Seas”, before the Indian parliament he set out Japan’s vision of an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” (AFP).[8] This framework warrants close analysis because it is the foundation of and develops into Japan’s comprehensive Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP), which was to take shape during Abe’s second administration.

Japan’s “Kissinger”

The AFP had been germinating within Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs since at least 2006, under the leadership of Shotaro Yachi who has been described as one of Japan’s “most strategy-savvy diplomats,”[9] and as “Japan’s Kissinger."[10] Yachi, Taro Aso, who succeeded Yachi, and Abe formed a triumvirate within the Japanese government. They were determined to promote Japan both domestically and internationally as a “torchbearer for the universal values of democracy, human rights, freedom, and the rule of law, and as an ‘Asian thought leader’” who, through the country’s “past failures and successes could enlighten the region’s late developers.”[11] The AFP, in other words, could be used as both a geopolitical and a pedagogical tool, taking advantage of Japan’s unique qualities as a Western-style democracy whose core ideas have been distilled in the alembic of Asian thought, providing Japan with an East-West perspective unmatched by any other Asian country.

In Aso’s 2006 speech regarding the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity, in which he promulgates “Japan’s expanding diplomatic horizons” and its “value-added diplomacy,” he identifies the region’s late developers as those “budding democracies that line the outer rim of the Eurasian continent, forming an arc.”[12] As we shall later see, the geography is important because it defines the area in which China is currently applying what is variously described as “predatory economics”[13], a “debt trap”[14], and “debtbook diplomacy”[15] to ultimately gain control of vital sea lanes in the Indo-Pacific region.  Note that the focus here is on China’s “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” rather than being on its “Silk Road Economic Belt”, the inland portion of China’s initiative. It is, of course, important not to downplay the significance of the Belt, but it is on the maritime commons that the quest for regional hegemony will be won or lost.

As the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out in the 2014 launch of its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, “The center of gravity in world affairs has shifted to Asia. No other region will do more to determine whether the 21st century will be a peaceful and prosperous one”[16]  If we take a close look at the early stages of Abe’s second administration, we can see how attuned the prime minister was to this geopolitical shift, and how clearly he saw the country’s responsibilities as a result of it.

Japan’s Role as the “Guardian of the Global Commons”

When Abe gave his “Japan is Back” speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in February 2013, he noted that of the three things that were “always on [his] mind” during the five years between his terms in office, one of them was Japan’s role as the “guardian of the global commons.”.  Here is what he said: “[W]hen the Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific region becomes more and more prosperous, Japan must remain a leading promoter of rules…and must continue to be a guardian of the global commons, like the maritime commons, open enough to benefit everyone.”  To achieve this goal, he continued, “Japan must work even more closely with the U.S., Korea, Australia and other like-minded democracies throughout the region.”[17]

During what Abe himself described in his CSIS speech as his “five long years” of reflection[18], the AFP framework had been incubating and maturing into a comprehensive geoeconomic foreign policy strategy that was recast as Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. All of the major ingredients from the AFP initiative of 2006-2007 are present. As Yachi has pointed out, the “basic principles of foreign policy in the second Abe era are no different from those in the first Abe era [September 2006–September 2007]”, reiterating that, “’Value-oriented diplomacy’ denotes a commitment to such universal values as freedom, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law”[19].

Although from its inception, the AFP also had an economic aspect, FOIP, as an extension of Abe’s Third Arrow concerning Japan’s revitalization strategy, gives geoeconomics a more prominent role to play.   As some commentators have noted, FOIP “is closely related to promoting [Japan’s] free trade, infrastructure investment and development,” since “Japanese economic growth will increasingly depend on access to overseas markets.”[20]  According to the Asian Development Bank, “developing countries in the [Indo-Pacific] region need $26 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2030 to fulfill their economic potential.”[21] With so much to play for, it is perhaps not surprising that Japan is using FOIP to stake its claim to a portion of it by offering its neighbors in the Indo-Pacific an alternative to China’s growing assertiveness.

The Myth of Benign Hegemony

As one scholar has persuasively argued, although “[i]t may be tempting to believe that China will be a relatively benign regional hegemon,” in fact “[g]reat powers typically dominate their regions in their quest for security. They develop and wield tremendous economic power. They build massive militaries, expel external rivals, and use regional institutions and cultural programs to entrench their influence.”[22] Part of China’s “quest for security” includes using economic coercion to create a string of ports in the Indo-Pacific, which, if we analyze its intentions realistically, is as much for military as it is for commercial reasons. FOIP is Japan’s way of driving a wedge into China’s plans, much like Obama planned to use the TPP and the TTIP to achieve the same ends.

Geoeconomics Meets Geopolitics

Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, therefore, is as much a geoeconomic as it is a geopolitical strategy, comprising the Quad (Japan, the US, Australia, and India), which, as one expert has observed, “shares the fundamental political, economic and social values of the free and open world, such as the rule of law, democracy, free markets, and human rights.”[23]  Japan is the lynchpin that holds FOIP together, providing, through Prime Minister Abe, the continuity of purpose and of thought that forms a conceptual thread from 2006 to the present-day.

In the face of America’s apparent abandonment of the tenet it has held since 1783, that “[t]he United States will not tolerate any other power establishing exclusive hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific,”[24] Japan is in a very real sense picking up the baton for the Quad’s like-minded democracies in the Indo-Pacific, while ensuring that America remains in the game by providing it with a coherent foreign policy strategy it would not otherwise have.  Prime Minister Abe’s skill in obtaining President Trump’s buy-in to FOIP helps to ensure that America’s military power will provide the clout that is necessary to make FOIP a viable foreign policy strategy in negotiations with countries in the region, including, of course, China.  Japan, in other words, is providing the strategy; America, the big gun.


Japan’s use of the words “Free and Open” is a message to China that, together with the U.S. and its other partners in the Quad, they are offering their neighbors in the Indo-Pacific region a choice between the rule of law and authoritarianism, between freedom and the confinement of a tribute system, and between transparency and opacity. 

Fittingly, Japan has made its geoeconomic initiatives in the Indo-Pacific a two-way street.  At the urging of Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, it has engaged with China on the Belt and Road Initiative and it is too diplomatically savvy to, like Washington, make FOIP a zero-sum game.  Rather, it is playing its geoeconomic cards wisely, whether it be its resuscitation of the TPP, its participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), or its working with India to develop the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC).  These initiatives can all be seen, in one way or another, as pillars supporting FOIP, not as a means to contain China, but to promote a strategy of cooperation and competition with China in order to achieve Abe’s ambition of keeping the Indo-Pacific region “open enough to benefit everyone”. [25]

Tim Bovy has been teaching Japanese diplomats at EJEF, formerly the Euro-Japanese Exchange Foundation, since 2010. Tim is also the CEO of Six Sentinels Ltd, an international consulting firm, located in London.  He has over 30 years of experience in designing information and risk management systems for organizations in Europe, the Middle East, and the US.  Tim has a BA, magna cum laude, from the University of Notre Dame, and MA and C.Phil degrees from the University of California, Davis.

[1]Satohiro Akimoto, “How Japan can save the Indo-Pacific Strategy,” July 24, 2018, available at https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2018/07/24/commentary/japan-commentary/japan-can-save-indo-pacific-strategy/#.W-g97JP7T4f

[2]By More than Providence, Columbia University Press, 2017, p.5

[3]Nadege Rolland, "China's Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative," May 2017 (PDF), p. xi

[4]Zbignew Brzezinski, (1997). The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Perseus Books, New York, pp. XIII-XIV, 30-31


[6]The Economist, “China v America,” October 20th-26th 2018, p.13.  Surprisingly, The Economist fails to mention FOIP in any of the issues three main articles about China and America. 

[7]Gurpreet S. Khurana, “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India–Japan Cooperation,” Taylor & Francis Online, 13 July 2007, available at (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09700160701355485)

[8]"Confluence of the Two Seas," Speech by H.E. Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japanat the Parliament of the Republic of India, August 22, 2007, available at https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html

[9]Tomohiko Taniguchi, Beyond “The Arc of Freedom and Prosperity”:Debating Universal Values in Japanese Grand Strategy, Asia Paper Series, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, October 2010, available at http://www.gmfus.org/publications/beyond-arc-freedom-and-prosperity-debating-universal-values-japanese-grand-strategy

[10]Giulio Pugliese, “Japan's Kissinger? Yachi Shotaro: the State Behind the Curtain,” 1 June 2017, available at https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/japans-kissinger(9222f1bf-6aff-4d62-9012-4f90452b4964).html

[11]Please See Note 6.

[12]“Arc of Freedom and Prosperity: Japan's Expanding Diplomatic Horizons," Speech by Mr. Taro Aso, Minister for Foreign Affairson the Occasion of the Japan Institute of International Affairs Seminar, November 30, 2006, available at https://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/fm/aso/speech0611.html

[13]Rex Tillerson, “Defining Our Relationship with India for the Next Century: An Address by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson,”Speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 18, 2017, available at https://www.csis.org/analysis/defining-our-relationship-india-next-century-address-us-secretary-state-rex-tillerson

[14]Ambassador Robert D. Blackwill, “Indo-Pacific Strategy in an Era of Geoeconomics,” Keynote Speech at a Conference Sponsored by the Japan Forum on International Relations, July 31, 2018, available at https://cfrd8-files.cfr.org/sites/default/files/pdf/8-20%20Tokyo%20Presentation.pdf

[15]Sam Parker and Gabrielle Chefitz, “Debtbook Diplomacy,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, May 24, 2018, available at https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/debtbook-diplomacy

[16]“About AMTI,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, available at https://amti.csis.org/about/

[17]Shinzo Abe, “Japan is Back,” Speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 22 February 2013, available athttps://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/pm/abe/us_20130222en.html

[18]Please See Note 9.

[19]Behind the New Abe Diplomacy: An Interview with Cabinet Advisor YachiSh?tar? (Part One), August 8, 2013, available at https://www.nippon.com/en/currents/d00089/

[20]James D. J. Brown, “Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy falls short,” April 3, 2018, available at https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2018/04/03/commentary/japan-commentary/japans-indo-pacific-strategy-falls-short/#.W_GUQ_Z2v4c

[21] Mitsuru Obe, “US,Japan and Australia team up on Indo-Pacific building push,” Nikkei Asian Review, July 31,  2018, available at https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/US-Japan-and-Australia-team-up-on-Indo-Pacific-building-push

[22]Jennifer Lind, “Life in China’s Asia,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2018 issue, available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-02-13/life-chinas-asia

[23]Please see footnote 1.

[24]Michael Green, By More Than Providence, quoted above.

[25] Please see footnote 17.



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Sat, February 02, 2019 08:47 PM (about 44340 hours ago)

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