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Masahiko Hosokawa

【#739】There Can Be No Indo-Pacific Strategy without “Free and Open”

Masahiko Hosokawa / 2020.11.26 (Thu)

November 24, 2020


A remark by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to the press after an online meeting with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on November 14 created a ripple. He mentioned a “peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific” instead of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” that Japan has advocated.

Keyword for value-oriented diplomacy

No one may raise any objection to “peace and prosperity.” The problem is how to achieve them. One country could achieve selfish peace and prosperity with an authoritarian, dictatorial method backed by military power.

In a political bid to contain such Chinese diplomatic attitude with “freedom” and “openness,” then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched a “free and open Indo-Pacific” in 2016. By emphasizing universal values such as freedom and democracy, he led cooperation with like-minded countries. This approach can be appreciated as a value-oriented diplomacy that had not been seen in Japan.

If “free and open” is replaced, however, with “peaceful and prosperous” to phrase the Indo-Pacific, a simply geographic concept of the region may be left with no significant values. “Free and open” is an indispensable keyword. Without the keyword, the concept may become soulless. Being unable to accept the universal values, China has been opposed to the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The revised phrasing may only please China.

The revised phrasing immediately came under fire in Japan. Embarrassed by the unintended outcome, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato at a press briefing and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi at a parliamentary session explained that the government’s policy of promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific” has remained unchanged. A joint statement by Prime Minister Suga and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison on their talks on November 17 restored the concept of “free and open.”

However, separate from domestic explanation, the problem is how the Suga remark was interpreted by the rest of the world. As some in Japan are concerned that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden could take a conciliatory attitude toward China, some in the United States have similar suspicion about the Suga administration. The Suga remark came at a bad timing just after Japan signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement excluding the U.S.

Suga’s strategic thinking to be questioned

Why did Suga make such blunder? Did he make consideration to ASEAN that does not want to irritate China? Or was he influenced by Biden who has not used the phrase of “free and open”?

In fact, some foreign policy advisers in the Biden transition team are reluctant to use the phrase adopted by the Trump administration. At a time when a Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific policy is still undecided, the team may be cautious about the terminology. If Japan ceases to use the keyword “free and open,” however, it could be taken as a Japan’s setback after having made consideration to China.

Bureaucrats should be held responsible for preparing the misleading and ill-considered remark for Suga without understanding the strategic meaning of the Abe-advocated phrase. However, it is more important how Suga himself can pursue coherent diplomacy based on principles.

Masahiko Hosokawa is a professor at Meisei University and a former director-general of the Trade Control Department at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. He is also a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.