Realizing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

By Abe Shinzo, Former Prime Minister of Japan

Less than a month before he was assassinated, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister set out his vision for the region. He buttressed his case by comparing China’s growing threats against Taiwan to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has drastically changed the global security environment and posed serious challenges to Japan’s security policy.

The invasion of Ukraine, an independent state, is a clear violation of international law and is absolutely intolerable. Initially, some experts, like think-tankers in the United States, predicted that the capital city, Kyiv, would fall within a few days, yet the Ukrainian government and people have remained resolute in their fight to defend their homeland.

Ukraine stood its ground against the great power, Russia. Adherence to the basic principle of “defending the homeland”, accompanied by Western countries’ large-scale military and financial assistance to the Ukrainians and imposition of economic sanctions on Russia, soon brought about a major change in the course of the war.

Did Russian President Vladimir Putin ever predict that Japan, the US, and Europe – a coalition of the willing that shares the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law – would unite to assist Ukraine?

Russia’s invasion attests to the extreme difficulty a single state can face in protecting its territory and its people’s lives and property by itself. As such, it is not unrelated to the security environment surrounding Japan.

During my first administration, in 2007, in an address to the Indian Parliament entitled “The Confluence of the Two Seas”, I departed from the “Asia-Pacific” idea and introduced a new geopolitical concept that envisaged the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as one “free sea”. Bearing in mind China’s efforts to become a military superpower, I also sought cooperation with countries in Asia that shared basic values, as well as an alignment between Japan, the US, Australia, and India.

Unfortunately, the US initially took a cautious stance in consideration of China’s stance at the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear development, which were then underway. India, attentive to its tradition of non-alignment, stayed on the sidelines. Nonetheless, with the support of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, I succeeded in realizing a high-level dialogue among the four states (informally known as the Quad).

Then, in 2016, during my second administration, I formally announced the idea of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Nairobi. Later, US President Donald Trump changed the name of the “Pacific Command” to “Indo-Pacific Command”, and the US began to align its military and diplomatic strategy with the strategy advocated by Japan.

The Quad foreign ministers’ meeting and the summit meeting were realized, respectively, under my administration and that of Yoshihide Suga. The joint statement issued after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Tony Albanese, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a summit in Tokyo on 24 May 2022, articulated the following principles regarding the regional situation in the Indo-Pacific:

We will champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight, to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas. We strongly oppose any coercive, provocative, or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo and increase tensions in the area, such as the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities.

Since the “Confluence of the Two Seas”, I have made known the threat posed by China, and doing so has borne fruit. Even the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have sent naval ships to the Indo-Pacific. It is no exaggeration to say that the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific has become a major turning point in global security policy.

Taiwan is located precisely in the Indo-Pacific. But rising tensions with China are linked to a situation half a world away, in Ukraine.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has several things in common with the tensions between China and Taiwan. First, Russia and China are nuclear powers and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Second, Ukraine and Taiwan have no military allies. But there is a crucial difference between Ukraine and Taiwan: Ukraine is internationally recognized as an independent state and is a member of the UN. That is why Russia’s invasion has been condemned worldwide as a violation of international law.

Taiwan, on the other hand, is not a UN member, and few countries recognize it as a sovereign state. If China advances on Taiwan, its leaders will claim that Taiwan is part of China, and that their actions are an internal matter intended to ensure China’s territorial integrity.

It remains to be seen whether countries will unite to assist Taiwan and impose economic sanctions on China, as has been the case in Ukraine.

Biden made it clear at a press conference in Japan that his administration would engage militarily to defend Taiwan. In the past, the US had adhered to a policy of “strategic ambiguity”, deliberately not clarifying the extent of its commitment to the defence of Taiwan. But I thought that clearly stating the US commitment would serve as a strong message to deter China from advancing on Taiwan by force. In that sense, I appreciated Biden’s remarks.

Backed by its huge economic power, China is expanding its influence in various regions and building military bases at the same time. While Japan, the US, Australia, and India have forged an extremely important framework for countering the threat, it is important to deepen our ties with countries that share our values, including European countries.

Japan has a big role to play. It must strengthen its defence capabilities, further deepen its alliance with the US, and realize the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

This translation of “A message to the readers of the Japanese edition” by Abe Shinzō, dated June 10, 2022, is the last text Abe wrote before his assassination on July 8. It can be found in the Japanese edition of Indo-Pacific Strategies: Navigating Geopolitics at the Dawn of a New Age.

Abe Shinzō was Prime Minister of Japan from 2006-07 and 2012-20.

Banner image: Former Japanese PM Abe Shinzo attends bilateral meeting in Kiev, Ukraine - June 6,2015. Credit: Shutterstock.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.www.project-syndicate.org