By Akiko Fukushima, January 31, 2023
Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, launched on November 27, 2022, has given further incentive for like-minded actors to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific. During his January 2023 visit to Ottawa, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told his Canadian counterpart that he welcomes Canada’s strategy and wants to work together “toward the realization of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” through a steady implementation of the “Action Plan.” This policy brief gives a Japanese academic’s view on cooperation with Canada and ASEAN to design and build a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
The rationale behind Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Japan’s FOIP dates back to 2007, when then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke on “the confluence of the Indian and Pacific oceans” in his address to the Indian Parliament. Subsequently Japan launched its FOIP strategy in 2016. Behind this policy was Japan’s need to look at the broader region beyond the traditional Asia-Pacific for its security and economy, while not negating any existing potential for regionalism. The FOIP aims to realize peace, stability and prosperity based on common values of freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy. Japan’s FOIP prioritizes cooperation over competition with like-minded countries who share a similar vision.
Faced with the criticisms that Japan’s FOIP entails an implicit containment effort towards China, Japan began changing how it referred to FOIP, evolving its language from an initial “strategy” to “vision,” and now simply FOIP. Furthermore, Japan has declared that FOIP is an “inclusive” concept as written explicitly in the Diplomatic Bluebook of 2020. Its core idea is to establish a rules-based international order and to consolidate principles such as free trade, freedom of navigation, and the rule of law.
In Japan, unlike other foreign policy terms, FOIP has been inherited by successive prime ministers. Incumbent Prime Minister Kishida plans to announce a FOIP peace plan in the spring of 2023. Over the years, Japan has implemented FOIP more comprehensively. Beyond its initial focus on sea lanes of communication, it has expanded its approach with coast guard capacity-building, maritime domain awareness, connectivity, including quality infrastructure development, health security, including the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, energy security, digital and green transformation, and other elements essential for the region.
Since Japan’s launch of FOIP, other like-minded countries have announced respective Indo-Pacific policies, including the US, Australia, India, UK, Germany, France, Netherlands, European Union, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and most recently, Canada and the Republic of Korea. What matters now is how policies will be operationalized. One can perceive convergence as well as divergence in how each country or grouping has rationalized their Indo-Pacific strategies. To better enable their convergence, it seems useful for countries to emphasize ASEAN’s role as a core player in the Indo-Pacific.
The role of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific
ASEAN is an indispensable partner for Japan and its FOIP. Indeed, the association sits in the very centre of the Indo-Pacific region and among the regional architectures. As a matter of fact, when Japan launched its FOIP, Japan heard concerns from ASEAN that FOIP deprives ASEAN of its centrality and overly antagonizes China. Japan has made efforts to defray such concerns, emphasizing ASEAN’s core role in the Indo-Pacific and the inclusive nature of FOIP.
With ASEAN, Japan has woven its ties of confidence and trust for over half a century. The major milestone in its relations was Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda’s 1977 speech on “Heart-to-Heart relations” with ASEAN in Manila. The ties have evolved to today’s strategic partnership.
When ASEAN announced its ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) in June 2019, Japan welcomed the AOIP as it shares key elements with Japan’s FOIP. In my view, AOIP includes three important elements – namely, ASEAN centrality, inclusivity, and concrete areas of cooperation, including maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development goals, and economic and other forms of cooperation. Through the Joint Statement on Practical Cooperation and Synergy, Japan and ASEAN have been implementing 89 concrete cooperation projects as of November 2022.
In November 2022, Prime Minister Kishida mentioned that Japan will further enhance cooperation in a number of areas: maritime cooperation, including maritime traffic safety, assistance for connectivity, including quality infrastructure investment, health care, climate change and disaster prevention measures, and cooperation on a wide range of economic areas, including supply chain resilience, digital technology, food security and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. As there are converging interests on the Indo-Pacific between ASEAN and Japan, cooperation should work to achieve greater synergy.
ASEAN does not want to take sides in a rivalry with China. At the same time, ASEAN members are diverse in their respective distance from China and from the US. Some ASEAN member states have received varying degrees of Chinese assistance when it comes to infrastructure developments through its Belt and Road Initiative. Others are aware of their financial dependence on China, and look to Japan and other actors as a means to offset such dependence.
Another point to note is that Japan regards regional cooperation as “multilayered” in the Indo-Pacific, comprised of bilateral, trilateral, minilateral and multilateral arrangements, which do not negate various regional geometry such as East Asia, Asia-Pacific, and others. Multilateralism now calls for more diverse cooperation than ever to achieve the end goal, based as it is on the rules-based international and regional order.
Working for FOIP with ASEAN and Canada
Since Canada has joined the like-minded countries in its new Indo-Pacific strategy, Japan ought to find ways to collaborate further with Canada in the region. In fact, Canada and Japan have agreed to work on six priority areas even prior to the launch of the Canadian strategy, namely on (1) rule of law, (2) peacekeeping operation and peacebuilding, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, (3) health security in responding to COVID-19, (4) energy security, (5) free trade promotion and trade agreement implementation and (6) environmental and climate change. Some of these six areas are similar to AOIP’s areas for cooperation, which lends itself for enhanced cooperation among the three actors.
In terms of further cooperation, Japan, ASEAN and Canada do not need to start by agreeing on a specific joint project. Instead, they can respectively pursue their own projects in the region while exchanging information about progress in identifying key areas that could generate synergy, which could be enhanced by further cooperation. Such bilateral or trilateral cooperation calls for solid communication with nuanced wordings and a common lexicon among like-minded states.
In its Indo-Pacific strategy, Canada alluded to cooperation with Japan in the Indo-Pacific. Canada and Japan are negotiating a General Security of Information Agreement that will enhance bilateral security cooperation. Canada’s engagement in Operation Neon certainly helps to deter North Korea to develop its nuclear weapons further. Canada’s enhanced engagement in peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific will help to further demonstrate solidarity of like-minded countries in maintaining the rule of law in the maritime domain and beyond. As an illustration of trilateral cooperation, Japan and Canada should augment their respective efforts in capacity-building with ASEAN members, which can produce greater synergy between the three actors.
Triggered by Russian aggression to Ukraine, the world is standing at a historic turning point. The world is at a threshold of division. And the Indo-Pacific is certainly vulnerable to these forces of division and competition. It is time for like-minded countries to enhance their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region in order to forestall such divisions.
Akiko Fukushima is Senior Fellow at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.