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Oleg Paramonov

Ph.D. in History; Senior Research Fellow, Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Studies, MGIMO University under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation; Associate Professor, School of International Affairs, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, Higher School of Economics National Research University; RIAC expert

Shinzo Abe’s recent decision to step down as Prime Minister has been one of the most noteworthy international events of recent times. This news, however, came from a country where the early resignation of a prime minister is nothing out of the ordinary. In some ways, it is almost routine. For example, when Shinzo Abe resigned as the prime minister of his first cabinet in 2007, it barely caused a stir. Back then, he had significantly less political charisma than he does today.

The question begs to be asked: What grand purpose was Abe trying to achieve when he returned to the post of prime minister in 2012, aside from improving Japan’s relations with Russia? Revising the pacifist provisions of the Constitution like his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister from 1957–1960? Learning what happened to those Japanese citizens who had been kidnapped by the North Korean special services (an unconditional priority of every prime minister of Japan)?

At the same time, Abe’s unfulfilled intentions in foreign and defence policies should probably be considered not in themselves, but as part of a large plan aimed at freeing Japan from its regional and global image as a power that was defeated in World War II, but then got away scot-free. A special term, “proactive pacifism,” was even proposed. Work on other aspects of the plan proved mostly successful.

In 2013, Japan adopted its first ever National Security Strategy. In 2014–2015, Abe spearheaded a revision of the stringent self-restrictions on exporting Japanese military products and on Tokyo’s participation in collective self-defence, which had over the period of the Cold War been transformed into a “sacred cow” for a significant part of pacifist Japanese society and an important element of the regional status quo.

Shinzo Abe expended much of his political resources on promoting the Indo-Pacific concept. For him, achieving a qualitative shift in the Russia–Japan relations was one his priority objectives. For example, Japan’s western partners were greatly disappointed by the mode of Tokyo’s participation in the attempt to isolate Russia following the Ukrainian crisis, since Tokyo took purely symbolic steps. One would hope that Japan, as one of the principal “facilitators” of the Indo-Pacific concept, will be further interested in preventing this mega project from transforming into an additional source of tension in Russia–Japan relations.

Shinzo Abe’s recent decision to step down as Prime Minister has been one of the most noteworthy international events of recent times. This news, however, came from a country where the early resignation of a prime minister is nothing out of the ordinary. In some ways, it is almost routine. For example, when Shinzo Abe resigned as the prime minister of his first cabinet in 2007, it barely caused a stir. Back then, he had significantly less political charisma than he does today.

The question begs to be asked: What grand purpose was Abe trying to achieve when he returned to the post of prime minister in 2012, aside from improving Japan’s relations with Russia? Revising the pacifist provisions of the Constitution like his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister from 1957–1960? Learning what happened to those Japanese citizens who had been kidnapped by the North Korean special services (an unconditional priority of every prime minister of Japan)?

At the same time, Abe’s unfulfilled intentions in foreign and defence policies should probably be considered not in themselves, but as part of a large plan aimed at freeing Japan from its regional and global image as a power that was defeated in World War II, but then got away scot-free. A special term, “proactive pacifism,” was even proposed. Work on other aspects of the plan proved mostly successful.

In 2013, Japan adopted its first ever National Security Strategy. In 2014–2015, Abe spearheaded a revision of the stringent self-restrictions on exporting Japanese military products and on Tokyo’s participation in collective self-defence, which had over the period of the Cold War been transformed into a “sacred cow” for a significant part of pacifist Japanese society and an important element of the regional status quo.

It was Abe and his influential fellow party members, such as Taro Aso, who developed the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific: A Shared Vision” concept that has already become an important part of both regional and global agendas (the term “Indo-Pacific” has been in limited use since the 1960s). Addressing the Parliament of India in 2007 (during his first term as Prime Minister of Japan), Abe spoke of “the confluence of the two seas.” Further on, the “destiny” of the Indo-Pacific was closely tied to Shinzo Abe’s political career.

Tokyo’s first attempts to advance a new regional concept ended with Abe’s resignation in 2007 and the defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan at the 2009 parliamentary elections. When Abe became prime minister again in 2012, the Indo-Pacific concept made a comeback to Japan’s foreign political discourse and was subsequently used by the Trump administration as a foundation of its own Indo-Pacific strategy. The very fact that the Department of State and the Pentagon started to use the term “free and open Indo-Pacific” proposed by Tokyo could be seen as a major success for Japan, which is traditionally criticized for obediently following America's foreign policy footsteps. In this instance, however, Tokyo is not merely a “supplier of terminology” for Washington.

Shinzo Abe’s government advocated a milder version of the Indo-Pacific, preferring infrastructural development of the region and freedom of navigation to tough actions intended to contain Beijing in the spirit of the Cold War. Recently, the United States has also come to see the economic component as a key element of the Indo-Pacific concept. This is evidenced, in particular, by a number of practical steps the administration has taken, including establishing the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) in 2018. Later, at the November 2019 Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Bangkok, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (the former name of the DFC), together with Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, launched the BlueDotNetwork infrastructure project, a multilevel initiative that guides state bodies, the private sector and NGOs in the creation of a high-quality infrastructure based on openness and inclusivity. The BlueDotNetwork will assess and certify infrastructure projects proposed primarily within the Indo-Pacific, but also beyond. These projects will be evaluated for compliance with the traditional western principles and standards of an open market, transparency and financial stability. Thus far, however, neither Tokyo nor Washington has been able to propose anything broader than searching for alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which could suggest that the Indo-Pacific concept is little more than a reaction. That said, Japan’s version of the Indo-Pacific concept appears to be the most well thought out at present. Washington has also attempted to give its vision of the Indo-Pacific concept a more specific shape, publishing a report entitled “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision” in November 2019.

Donald Trump’s protectionist measures — for example, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — do not generally align with Japan’s liberalist approach to the Indo-Pacific. Tokyo insists that it is advancing its own version of the concept, one that is autonomous from the American view. The Japanese concept focuses on the economic component and is open to other states. This approach may be acceptable for Russia as well, provided that the conditions mentioned by Vladimir Putin at a Valdai Club meeting in 2019 are met. For instance, the idea of “fundamental rights” forms part of the concept and, according to Tokyo, should be linked not with domestic policies, but rather with developing international trade based on transparent and universally applicable rules.

Tokyo is also trying to "stay ahead of the game" in many ways, striving, in particular, to involve ASEAN more closely in the Indo-Pacific agenda. Positive trends include the attempts in 2018–2019 to synchronize the approaches of both Japan and ASEAN to the Indo-Pacific concept. The ASEAN member states are not the key participants in the Indo-Pacific concept, according to its principal designers (the key participants are the so-called “Quad”: the United States, Japan, India and Australia). Tokyo, however, views ASEAN as the geographical “core” of the strategy. Additionally, many of the Association’s member states have stable economic ties with Japan and have recently been acting as regional security partners of Tokyo [1].

In May 2018, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Singapore Vivian Balakrishnan said that Singapore would not join the “Quad” of nations until Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific: A Shared Vision” adequately addresses the issue of whether ASEAN would continue to be central to the region's architecture. Other ASEAN member states have supported these views: in August 2018, ASEAN representatives stated that they would find it difficult to support an allegedly anti-Chinese “strategy.” Moreover, in 2018, Indonesia put forward an initiative to develop the Concept of the ASEAN Indo-Pacific that was approved in June 2019 at the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok.

Fearing a weakening of its positions in Southeast Asia, the Abe government agreed to a compromise. Tokyo announced that the principle of ASEAN's central role in resolving regional security problems (the need to preserve this principle was repeatedly emphasized, among others, by members of the Russian leadership) was in line with the Indo-Pacific concept. When mentioning the concept, the Japanese government abandoned the term “strategy," which could have been done to ease the concerns of some ASEAN members about how Beijing might react. Still, it is unclear whether or not ASEAN sees the American and Japanese approaches to Indo-Pacific in a positive light.

At the same time, the so-called third pillar of Japan’s Indo-Pacific concept (“commitment for peace and stability”) is the most controversial element in Japan’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. Officially, Japan has proposed that the following areas be the focus of attention: peace-making operations, combating terrorism, maritime piracy, disaster relief, non-proliferation compliance and Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). The Joint Statement issued after the April 2019 “two + two” meeting states that one of the priorities of the U.S.–Japan security alliance is the cooperation of the United States and Japan with “partners for a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Thus, there may be profound differences between the principles of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” declared by Tokyo and the need to for Japan to constantly be on the same page as Washington on Indo-Pacific issues, which is due, among other things, to their having a military dimension.

Shinzo Abe expended much of his political resources on promoting the Indo-Pacific concept. For him, achieving a qualitative shift in the Russia–Japan relations was one his priority objectives. For example, Japan’s western partners were greatly disappointed by the mode of Tokyo’s participation in the attempt to isolate Russia following the Ukrainian crisis, since Tokyo took purely symbolic steps. One would hope that Japan, as one of the principal “facilitators” of the Indo-Pacific concept, will be further interested in preventing this mega project from transforming into an additional source of tension in Russia–Japan relations.

1. Yennie-Lindgren, W. Old Sake, New Barrel? Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy // Mind the Gap: Comparing Views of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, ed. By Sharon Stirling, April 2019, No. 9, p. 36.


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