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Japan's position in the Asia-Pacific in light of the regional institutions

By Lluc López i Vidal
Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and Director of the Master’s in International Affairs and Diplomacy UNITAR-UOC
May 26, 2023
The Asia Pacific is a region of intense rivalry between major powers such as the US, China, India, and Japan, and in which a variety of threats have surfaced, such as terrorism, piracy, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, natural disasters and, most recently, the fight against the COVID-19. In spite of those perils, after decades of growing interdependence and economic vitality, the region is also home to a vast institutional architecture conformed by a series of initiatives of cooperation in the field of trade, investment, or security, which are, on occasion, overlapped and duplicated. In the wake of the post-pandemic period and in the midst of the Ukrainian conflict and the consequent risk of new bloc diplomacy, Japan has an excellent opportunity to decide which regional projects to support, and which to reject. In short, Japan can finally play a bigger role in regional leadership, commensurate with its actual economic, political, and security power.
A graphic representation of the ASEAN countries
During the Cold War, the Asian regional order was described as a “hub-and-spokes” system, a concept that evokes a metaphorical image of a wheel with the US at the center, linked by the spokes of various bilateral trade and security agreements with its regional key allies: South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, or Japan. However, with the end of the bipolar world and the decrease of the ideological confrontation that separated the economies of the region, there has been a proliferation of free trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific. In this context, Japan embarked on a series of economic cooperation initiatives such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the ASEAN Plus Three (Japan, the Republic of Korea and China), or East Asia Summit (along with the United States and Russia). Since then, Japan has been an active actor in various regional institutions and plays an important role in leading those initiatives in areas such as trade, security, environment, health, and economic development.

The creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2015 was a turning point in the development of regional institutions and in the central role played by Japan. As a part of Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, the TPP was an initiative aimed to go beyond traditional deals and to create not only a region free of trade barriers but also to reshape the rules of trade for the 21st century in the Pacific Rim. The ratification of the TPP in 2016 represented one of the major victories of Prime Minister Abe, who had to fiercely fight against the domestic pressures exerted by some agricultural lobbies. Abe did the impossible: he crushed the forces against the TPP and convinced the Japanese that it was in their best interest.

However, only three days after being appointed president, on January 2017, Trump gave the order to withdraw from the TPP, a decision justified to stop the “unfair” advantage Japanese car sales enjoyed in the US. After a period of stupefaction, Abe proposed to revive the TPP-11 (TPP without the US) under the name of Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). It was a renewed initiative to promote regional trade agreements, to put an end to a new period of protectionism, and at the same time to be prepared in the event of Biden’s administration reversing course.

After Abe’s resignation, Suga Yoshihide’s administration was not only supporting a TPP-11 without the US but also joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), signed on November 2020 and considered to be the world's largest trade agreement in terms of GDP and population. The project includes ASEAN members, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, is led by China and Japan, and excludes the US, which government has already expressed concerns about the agreement, particularly regarding its potential impact on American manufacturers and workers. After Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP, the RCEP became a new framework for establishing a rules-based regional order in areas such as trade barriers, intellectual property, or investment. For Japan, the RCEP helps mitigate the risks of trade disputes with the United States, and, ironically, it is a tool to counterbalance China's economic influence, diversify its export markets, and maintain Japan’s political leverage in the region.

A map of the RCEP member countries
Nonetheless, China’s regional policy has recently clashed with Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), an initiative first proposed by Shinzo Abe in 2016, aimed at promoting a free, open, and inclusive region based on the rule of law and the protection of freedom of navigation. It also enables regional economic integration and infrastructure development, with a focus on connectivity and capacity-building in areas such as transportation, energy, and telecommunications. This initiative is clearly seen as a counterbalance to China's Belt and Road Initiative, which also focuses on infrastructure development and connectivity in the region.

Biden has enthusiastically supported the proposal, and in May 2022 the US has launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), an initiative with Australia, India, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan among others, to promote economic growth and prosperity in the region. This new project is based on five key areas: trade and investment, infrastructure, energy, private sector engagement, and digital economy, with a focus on critical infrastructure, such as 5G networks and data centers.
A map showing Japan, North and South Korea, China, and Russia
Beyond their economic dimension, the FOIP and the IPEF are two watchwords that reflect some common concerns over China’s growing economic and military strength and the importance to limit Beijing's ability to shape the economic and security architecture of the region to its own advantage. In the same vein, Japan has also been actively promoting various initiatives, such as the Japan-US-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, Japan-ASEAN Connectivity Initiative, and the Quadrilateral (or Quad) Security Dialogue along with Australia, India, and the United States.

Japan’s approach to the Indo-Pacific also has global implications, since it promotes the values of freedom, sustainable development, democracy, and peace. It places Tokyo in a leading position of a coalition to counterbalance illiberal states such as China, North Korea, and Russia. Kishida Fumio’s 2022 new approach to its security strategy implies higher defense spending, acquiring counterstrike missile capabilities, and enhancing defense cooperation with the US to respond to security challenges. With this major shift in its security policy, the most ambitious since the end of the Second World War, Japan will be able to advance initiatives to contribute to regional security, such as the establishment of a regional security dialogue mechanism or the creation of a regional maritime security framework. Japan might be back; but in a proactive, mature, and responsible nature.
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