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Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” Vision: Strategic vision and domestic political institutions

Published onFeb 21, 2022
Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” Vision: Strategic vision and domestic political institutions
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I. Introduction

In August 2016, at the TICAD (Tokyo International Conference on African Development) held in Nairobi, Prime Minister Abe advocated a “Free and Open Indo Pacific” Strategy (FOIP), in which he emphasized such values as “freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy.” Since then, Japan has been intensively formulating a series of security and economic policies under the banner of this “Free and Open Indo Pacific” vision.

Scholars have already been engaged in intensive research on Japan’s “Free and Open Indo Pacific” strategy.1 They have so far made three contributions. First, they have identified concrete policies launched under the strategy. Second, some of them have explored the process by which Japan came to formulate such a strategy.2 Third, they have explored the factors which motivated the Abe Administration to launch the FOIP, highlighting the rise of China as an important driving factor in its formation.3

Certainly, a major change in international structure prompted the Abe administration to launch the FOIP. There are several elements composing this change. The first is a change in relative balance of power in the world. As demonstrated by Figure 1, China started to grow rapidly from the first decade of this century. It became the second largest economy in the world in 2010 and continues to expand. Further, China launched the Belt and Road Initiative from around 2012 and 2013, which is likely to enhance its influence in Asia.4

The second factor is the increasing instability in the security environment in Asia. In recent years, tensions have grown as China has tried to expand its sphere of influence in South China Sea, reclaiming reefs and building airfields. Further, stresses have developed in the East China Sea, as China has become more eloquent about its claim over Senkaku Islands, with Chinese state vessels frequently penetrating Japanese territorial waters.

The third element, which is related to the first, is the rise of India. As demonstrated by Figure 1, India has been steadily growing; by 2016, its economy was roughly the same size as the economies of France or Great Britain; and, with a population of more than 1.3 billion, its economy is expected to expand further. The rise of India is likely to change the political dynamics of Asia and to promote the rise of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic geopolitical concept.



Drawing on insights gained from previous research, this paper extends analysis of the FOIP, and draws attention to the relationship between the promotion of the FOIP by Japan and the configuration of Japanese domestic political institutions.

As the existing literature has pointed out, changes in the international environment drove the Abe administration to launch the FOIP. However, while the international environment is an important factor, it alone cannot explain how the Abe administration launched the FOIP and formulated various policies under its banner. This is because, even when there is a structural impetus for a government to formulate policies, the nature of the political institutions at the disposal of policy makers affects the substances of those policies.

The FOIP is politically significant in terms of postwar Japanese diplomacy in that it combines economic policies as well as security policies into a comprehensive external policy for the first time in Japan’s post war history.

This paper demonstrates that Japan was able to launch and continue to promote the FOIP because the prime minister’s capabilities to initiate and coordinate policies had expanded as a result of a series of reforms of Japanese political institutions carried out since the 1990s.

More concretely, this paper has three objectives. First, it analyses the process leading to the formulation of the FOIP. Next, it describes the contents of the FOIP, showing that it consists of a set of economic policies as well as a set of security policies. Third, it explores the connection between the structure of domestic institutions and the formation of the FOIP. It draws attention to the fact that a series of institutional reforms since the 1990s enhanced the power of prime minister and of the institutions supporting him. It argues that this expansion of prime ministerial power and of the institutions supporting the prime minister — namely, the Cabinet Secretariat and the Cabinet Office — provided prime ministers with enough capacity to formulate the FOIP as a comprehensive political strategy combining economic and security policies.

To fulfil these objectives, the paper proceeds as follows. In the second section, it provides an analytical framework for examining the process leading to the formulation of the FOIP. In the third section, it describes how Japan came to launch the FOIP in 2016. In the fourth section, it analyzes how the expansion of the power and supporting institutions of the prime minister enabled Japan to formulate the FOIP effectively. In the last section, it discusses the implications of these analyses.

II. Analytical Framework

This paper focuses on the effects of political institutions on Japanese policy formulation. It attaches importance to the effect of political reforms on the power of the Japanese prime minister to formulate policies.

The Japanese prime minister’s political power has expanded as a result of three institutional reforms carried out since the 1990s. The political reform of 1994 changed the electoral system in a way that expanded the power of the prime minister within the ruling party (which he leads as the head of the party). Before the reform, it was relatively easy to be elected as an independent under the SNTV system. After the reform, it became difficult to be elected as an independent; indeed, it became vital for politicians to receive party endorsement to be re-elected. In the LDP, it is the party leadership that has the formal power of endorsing candidates. The LDP president, as leader of the party, projects influence over these decisions. As a result, when the LDP is in power, the prime minister (in his capacity as the LDP president) is able to discipline backbenchers more effectively than before the reforms of the 1990s — making it easier for the prime minister to obtain support for the policies he pursues.

The administrative reform of 2001 provided the prime minister with more power in the process of formulating policies. Before the reform, the Japanese prime minister did not have formal power to initiate policies. The reform gave the prime minister the authority to initiate policies in which he was interested, even when there were ministers who had direct jurisdiction over such policies.

The 2001 reform, as well as strengthening the organisation of the Cabinet Secretariat (which supports the prime minister), also gave the Cabinet Secretariat formal power to design policies and draft legislation — whereas, before the reform, the Cabinet Secretariat only had authority to coordinate the formulation of policy by other ministries. In addition, the 2001 reform created a new Cabinet Office to support the prime minister in his policy formulation and coordination.

Since the 2001 reform, the Cabinet Secretariat has steadily enlarged its functions as well as roles in policy formulation and coordination.5 First, there has been a constant increase in the number of officials in the Cabinet Secretariat. Whereas, in 2000 before the reform, there were 822 civil servants including those seconded from other ministries, the Secretariat continuously expanded following the reform, and by 2020 contained 3306 officials including those seconded from other ministries.



Further, the number of sections under the Cabinet Affairs Officer as well as the Assistant Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretaries increased from 10 in 2001 to 49 in 2021. These sections formulate and coordinate policies to which the administration attaches importance.

The reform of 2013, which introduced the National Security Council, enhanced the prime minister’s power over formulation of security policy. Before the reform, the coordination of policies between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense was a time-consuming process. The reform set up a so-called ‘Four Ministers’ Council’, consisting of the prime minister, the chief cabinet secretary, the foreign minister, and the defense minister, and established a National Security Secretariat within the Cabinet Secretariat. These new institutions made it faster for the prime minister to coordinate between the Ministry of Foreigh Affairs and the Ministry of Defence — and hence made it easier for the prime minister to lead formulation of security policy..

The combination of these reforms significantly enhanced the position and reinforced the leadership of the prime minister. The prime minister became a centripetal force in government.

This institutional change in the Japanese government had significant political implications for the policy formulation process in Japan. It became much easier for the prime minister to formulate policies involving multiple ministries, and to obtain support for such policies from the backbenchers of the ruling parties.

Prime Minister Abe was able to take advantage of this new power when launching the FOIP — which consists of a set of economic policies and a set of security policies that supervene on the jurisdictions of a range of different ministries. The prime minister was also able to take advantage of the new power conveyed by the series of reforms when formulating detailed policies under the banner of FOIP, relying on such organizations as the Cabinet Secretariat, the Cabinet Office, the NSC, and the NSS .

III. Initiation of the FOIP

Prime Minister Abe launched his “Free and Open Indo Pacific” Strategy at the TICAD held in Nairobi in 2016. 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.”6

It is possible to trace the origin of this vision — in particular, the treatment of areas around the Pacific Ocean and areas around the Indian Ocean as one region — to various ideas advocated during the first Abe administration, such as in the speech made by Prime Minister Abe’s when he visited India in August 2007 under the title “Confluence of the Two Seas.”7

After stepping down as prime minister, Shinzo Abe recollected that he had first come to attach importance to India and the Indo-Pacific when he was serving as a deputy chief cabinet secretary in the Koizumi Administration, and had felt it necessary to manage Japan’s bilateral relationship with China and South Korea in a global context8. Shortly after making a comeback to the premiership in December 2012, the then Prime Minister Abe published an article alerting the world to the rise of China9. In this article, he not only re-emphasized that the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean are inseparable, but also highlighted the importance of cooperation among four democratic countries in the region, Australia, India, Japan, and the US. It was this strategic idea that developed into the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” Strategy launched in 2016.

IV. Three Pillars of the FOIP Vision

Japan has pursued three goals through the FOIP — the promotion of one set of overarching political values and the achievement of two specific sets of policy objectives.

As political values, Japan has promoted the rule of law, the freedom of navigation and free trade. As more specific policy objectives, Japan has pursued both an economic and a security goal. As an economic goal, it has pursued prosperity through the development of infrastructure aimed at enhancing connectivity in the region, and through the promotion of free trade agreements (FTAs). As security goals, it has sought peace and security through strengthening cooperation between the SDF and the armed forces of other countries in the region, and through building the capacity of the coast guards in Indo-Pacific countries to enforce maritime security.

In the field of economics, Japan has taken various steps to promote the development of infrastructure, and to expand FTAs in the region as well as beyond the region.

As regards the development of infrastructure, Japan has attached particular importance to the development of two corridors — an East-West Corridor and a Southern Corridor connecting Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Japan has also promoted various projects in South Asia, such as the development of the bullet train in India between Ahmadabad to Mumbai, increasing connectivity in the North Eastern provinces of India.

Within the FOIP, there are two pillars in the field of security policy. The first is the expansion of cooperation between Japan’s SDF and the armed forces of various countries in the region. As a matter of course, the core of the cooperation is with the United States. But, in addition to cooperating with the US, Japan has been trying to deepen security cooperation with two other countries — Australia and India. It has also has been trying to build closer ties with Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam through such activities as joint exercises. As a part of this security cooperation, Japan also has been engaged in efforts to enhance the capacities of the armed forces of Southeast Asian countries in diverse areas such as disaster relief, search and rescue operations, and peace keeping operations.

The second security policy pillar is cooperation in enhancing the maritime law enforcement capabilities of various countries in the region through the provision of vessels and training. In particular, Japan has been cooperating with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam to expand their enforcement capacity in terms of organization, equipment and human resources.

V. Prime Minister’s institutional power and the FOIP Vision

The gradual increase of the Japanese prime minister’s institutional power contributed to the formation and promotion of the FOIP Vision.

Prime Minister Abe made use of the Cabinet Secretariat to formulate policies under the FOIP Vision. For the development of infrastructure, the Abe Cabinet utilized the Council on Strategy of Infrastructure Development through Economic Cooperation. The cabinet set up the Council originally to design cabinet policies on infrastructure development in newly emerging countries as well as developing countries. Meetings of the Council involved the chief cabinet secretary, the foreign minister, the finance minister, the. METI minister, the minister of transportation and infrastructure, and the minister for economic revitalization. The Cabinet Secretariat served as the secretariat of the Council. Following the launch of the FOIP, the Council examined infrastructure projects in various regions and agreed basic policies guiding infrastructure development under the FOIP.

Increased prime ministerial power also made it easier for Japan to exercise leadership in negotiations for FTAs which Japan pursued as a part of the FOIP, such as the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) For the TPP, the Abe cabinet set up a Secretariat for TPP negotiations within the Cabinet Secretariat in April 2013. This Secretariat worked as the headquarters for formulating Japanese policies on TPP. It consisted of about 100 bureaucrats in two divisions, one responsible for formulating Japan’s negotiating strategy, and the other responsible for coordinating domestic policies in response to the TPP.10 The Abe cabinet transferred key officials from relevant ministries ( such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) to this Secretariat..11

Through these bureaucratic structures, Prime Minister Abe was able to make use of his power to coordinate policies among different ministries, determining areas where Japan should seek concession from other countries as well as areas where Japan could accept demands from other countries. Relying on his expanded power within the LDP, he was able to persuade LDP backbenchers who were opposed to making concessions to other countries, in particular in the field of agriculture, to follow his lead.

Despite the US decision to withdraw from the TPP, Prime Minister Abe maintained his committment to the agreement. Japan led the negotiations with the remaining ten countries, and brought the negotiations to a successful conclusion in 2018.12

Now, this paper turns to the role of the prime minister’s expanded power in security cooperation, which Japan also pursued under the FOIP. In this regard, the National Security Council and the National Security Secretariat in the Cabinet Secretariat played important roles. They contributed to disseminating the ideas of the FOIP to officials in the Department of Defense and the Japan Coast Guard.

In particular, the the National Security Secretariat played an important role in drafting the National Defense Program Guideline of 2018, which in turn played an important role in leading the Ministry of Defense to align its policy with the FOIP. This Guideline declared Japan’s strategic commitment to the promotion of security cooperation with other countries from diverse angles and in multilayers, bearing in mind the “Free and Open Indo Pacific” Vision, while treating the US-Japan alliance as a pillar of such cooperation. In terms of concrete policies, the Guideline referred to strengthening security cooperation with Australia, India, and Southeast Asian countries..

A second body, which has also played a significant role in coordinating different ministries to promote security cooperation with other countries under the FOIP, is the Ocean Policies Headquarters, which contributed to the Japan Coast Guard aligning its policy with the FOIP. The ministerial members of the Ocean Policies Council have been responsible for designing key government policies related to governance of the seas. The Cabinet Office has provided its secretariat. Since the launch of the FOIP, the Council has been responsible for formulating a range of policies related to maritime security, and has in particular produced the Third Basic Plan on Ocean Policy, which provides for enhanced cooperation to build the maritime law enforcement capabilities of “friendly nations.” Following the approval of the Plan, the Japan Coast Guard emphasised that it would engage in building the capacity of other countries to enforce maritime law as a part of the FOIP.

VI. Conclusion

This paper has demonstrated how Japan came to design the “Free and Open Indo Pacific” Vision and to introduce a set of concrete policies under the inspiration of this vision. While Japan launched the FOIP in response to the rise of China, it was the transformation of Japanese political institutions and the consequent empowerment of the prime minister that made it possible to orchestrate the implementation of the vision in a coherent set of economic and security policies.

The FOIP was not the first Japanese strategic program aimed at enhancing cooperation between Japan and countries in the Indo-Pacific; nor was this the first time that post-war Japanese governments have articulated a political concept for Asia or for the Asia-Pacific region. For example, Prime Minister Ohira proposed a Pan-Pacific strategy to promote cooperation in the Pacific Rim.

What sets the FOIP apart from these previous attempts is its inclusion of both economic and security policies in a single, comprehensive strategy.

This paper suggests that at least one reason why post-war Japan was not previously able to propose any such comprehensive vision was the decentralised nature of the Japanese political system, the inability of the prime minister to exercise leadership within the government, and the consequent difficulty and delay involved in reaching political agreement at home in Japan .

The paper further suggests that, with the reforms implemented since the 1990s, there may now be more chance for Japan to continue to formulate comprehensive strategic visions and hence to act more proactively in the world.

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