US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s Nippon visit in July 19-22 further stressed the paramount significance of Japan in the Indo-Pacific architecture. After having met the Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori, as well as her South Korean counterpart Choi Jong-kun in Tokyo, the US official stated that “The U.S.-Japan alliance has never been stronger as our countries work together to maintain peace and security in the region and to tackle issues of global importance, including ending the pandemic.” As Sherman’s visit to Japan is part of a wider Asian tour which also included Republic of Korea, Mongolia and China [presented here https://www.irsea.ro/en/Sherman-Wang-Meeting/ ], one may infer that the dynamic challenges faced by East Asia, as well as the complex Indo-Pacific architecture figured, inter alia, on the leaders’ agenda.
In fact, as a geopolitical concept, the notion of “Indo-Pacific” was coined by the very former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his remarkable speech on the “confluence of the two seas”, held in the Indian Parliament on August 2007. Though, as a geographical term, the concept of “Indo-Pacific” can be traced back to 1920s, its geopolitical valences appeal to the creation of a “broader Asia” situated at the “confluence of the two seas”, i.e. the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. In this regard, Japan’s role in the Indo-Pacific’s geopolitics of the 21st century is not only undeniable, but similarly proactive, enterprising and conscientious.
Naturally, one may add consistency as an attribute of the Japanese view of the Indo-Pacific. The Fukuda Doctrine, iterated by the former Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda 44 years ago in relation to ASEAN, is not only as valid today as in 1977, but one may comment that it has grown to serve as Japan’s current diplomacy for the whole Asia. The principles exposed by Fukuda, i.e. Japan not to become a military power, Japan to forge ties with ASEAN based to “heart to heart” understanding and Japan to be an equal partner of ASEAN and its member countries, have become a testimony of commitment, dedication and consistency.
As new dynamics emerged in the Indo-Pacific architecture of power, one may expect the Fukuda doctrine to be not amended, but enhanced. In this regard, former Prime-Minister Abe’s speech, supposed to be delivered in Jakarta in 2013, cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, yet publicly available on Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website is indicative of the country’s upgraded and updated Indo-Pacific approach.
According to the Nippon high-ranking official, “freedom of thoughts, expression and speech” are “universal values that humanity has gained and they must be allowed to flower to the fullest”.
Secondly, “ensuring that the seas (…) are governed by laws and rules, not by might” represents a clear reference to the on-going effervescences in the Indo-Pacific with regard to both East China and South China seas, a matter which called the attention of multiple East and Southeast Asian countries. It was, perhaps, in this regard that Abe explicitly granted his “wholeheartedly welcome [to] the American rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region”.
The third principle, namely “pursuing free, open, interconnected economies (…) by bringing our national economies closer together through flows of trade and investment, people, and goods” is visible in Japan’s newly ratified (June 25, 2021) membership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – a massive trade agreement involving China, ASEAN and the Republic of Korea – as well as in the country’s ratification (on July 2018) of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Moreover, Japan has been highly regarded as one of the most impactful contributors to Asia’s connectivity through projects such as the Greater Mekong Subregion Southern Economic Corridor.
Fourthly, “fruitful intercultural ties among the peoples of Japan and this region” has been presented as one of the priorities of the Japan-ASEAN cooperation.
The final principle, “promoting exchange among the younger generations who will carry our nations into the future” remains one of the features of the Japanese public diplomacy.
Indeed, as the Japan-ASEAN cooperation spans for over four decades, the two dialogue partners have built an extensive cooperative partnership for peace and stability to serve as premise for development, prosperity and close business relations in the region. Among the cooperation mechanisms, one may refer to the ASEAN-Japan Summit, Ministerial Meetings, Senior Officials and Experts Meetings. Japan has similarly been engaged in ASEAN-led mechanisms, i.e. ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Plus Three (APT), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMMPlus), and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF).
Moreover, on the occasion of the 23rd ASEAN-Japan Summit on Cooperation on ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, attended by all Heads of State/Government of ASEAN Member States and the Prime Minister of Japan, Suga Yoshihide, new synergies have been identified and all the parties have agreed to support “strengthening ASEAN Centrality, openness, transparency, inclusivity, a rules-based framework, good governance, respect for sovereignty, nonintervention”, appealing to respect for international law, as embodied in the UN Charter and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Surely, the statement comes during regional effervescences related to competing maritime claims in both Japan and Southeast Asia (East China Sea and South China Sea, respectively).
As the Japanese Prime Minister noted, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific <<has many fundamental commonalities with the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" promoted by Japan, and Japan strongly supports it>>.
Of course, similar shared “fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and the respect for basic human rights” have been manifested by Japan in forming a "Strategic Global Partnership” along the “outer rim of the Eurasian continent”, yet “incorporating the United States of America and Australia.”
It is hence in this key that one must interpret US Deputy State Secretary Sherman to Japan. Naturally, the current dynamic Indo-Pacific architecture includes multiple stakeholders and requires volition, synergy and cooperation. Most importantly, in the light of possibly competing views of emerging and established powers, it may also require compromise. It is in this regard that Japan’s diplomacy is expected to provide its most significant contribution to the global community.
Ambassador (p) Gheorghe SAVUICA*
* One of Romania's longest serving career diplomats, former Head of Mission, in his capacity as Charge d’Affaires a.i., with Cabinet Letter, to Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cyprus, Finland, Estonia, later as Ambassador to Pakistan and Indonesia, and former Director-General of the Asia-Pacific, Near and Middle East, Africa and Latin America Department of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador (p) Gheorghe Savuica authored multiple edited volumes and op-eds. Following his relentless activity in the Romanian Academia, Ambassador (p) Savuica was awarded the “Grigore Gafencu” Prize by the Academy of Romanian Scientists. Specialist on Southeast Asia, certified speaker of Bahasa Indonesia, Ambassador (p) Savuica is a graduate of Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO).