The Geoeconomics and Geopolitics of Japan’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ Strategy

Published date01 August 2019
Date01 August 2019
Subject MatterArticles
The Geoeconomics and
Geopolitics of Japan’s
‘Indo-Pacific’ Strategy
David Scott1
This article seeks to trace, explain and evaluate Japan’s shift towards the ‘Indo-
Pacific’. It argues that Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy is one that explicitly seeks to
(a) expand Japan’s presence across Indo-Pacific in order to (b) openly and explic-
itly gain greater energy security and in order to (c) tacitly and implicitly restrain
China. Stephen Walt’s ‘balance of threat’ logic is of relevance, given its focus on
‘geographic proximity’ and ‘perceived offensive intentions’ posed by China to
Japan and other states in the region. The structure of the article is threefold: (a)
Indo-Pacific strategic discourse in Japan, (b) Japan’s Indo-Pacific actorness, with
regard to its role in regional structures and its own maritime projections across
the region and (c) Japan’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy, with regard to the various
bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral partnerships, strategic geometry, that Japan
has fashioned. The article concludes with overall evaluation of the effectiveness
of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Japan, Indo-Pacific, China, geopolitics, geoeconomics, balancing
In September 2017, Kenji Hiramatsu (2017c), Japan’s ambassador to India,
emphasised that the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ (Indoyo-Taihei) was ‘the key word for
Japan’s strategic thinking’. High stakes are involved. As one Japanese observer
noted, ‘it is on the Indo-Pacific region that Japan has staked its future’ (Shiraishi,
2016; also 2018), in what he considered was this ‘Indo-Pacific era’ (Shiraishi,
2014; also Tanaka, 2015). In another speech, on the changing geopolitics of
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
6(2) 136–161, 2019
The Author(s) 2019
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2347797019842440
1 NATO Defense College Foundation, Cornwall, UK.
Corresponding author
David Scott, NATO Defense College Foundation, 7 Barrepta Close, Carbis Bay, St. Ives.
Cornwall TR26 2LL, UK.
Scott 137
Asia, Hiramatsu (2017d) reflected that ‘we used to discuss strategic issues with
a focus on the Pacific Ocean’, but since ‘that focus has shifted to India and the
Indian Ocean, thus, it is becoming more fitting to refer to the broader “Indo-
Pacific” region nowadays’. This article seeks to trace and explain Japan’s shift
in strategic focus with Japan ‘expanding its strategic horizons’ (Tsuruoka, 2018)
from a traditional focus on East Asia and the Western Pacific through a ‘south-
west pivot’ (Nagao & Collin, 2017) into the South Pacific, South China Sea and
Indian Ocean (Akiyama, 2014; Oba, 2018; Wallace, 2018).
The reasons for this shift are twofold and interlinked, namely, energy security
and China. Energy security considerations mean that maintaining energy flows
through secure Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) coming from the Middle
East across the Indian Ocean and South China Sea is a key geoeconomic imperative
for Japan. China’s increasing presence across the Indo-Pacific is a growing threat
to Japanese interests, both geopolitically in terms of China’s immediate push
across the East China Sea to Japan’s Ryukyu chain, but also more widely into
securing the South China Sea and operating in strength in the Indian Ocean, which
geoeconomically potentially threatens Japan’s energy security flows. Japan is
already responding to China’s push through the Ryukyu chain (the so-called ‘first
island chain’) by moving forces from the north-facing Russia to the south-west-
facing China. China’s push into the South China Sea and Indian Ocean is bringing
Japan’s own greater naval presence and shaping the security partnerships and
infrastructure initiatives with other China-concerned states there.
Its theory application is evident with Stephen Walt’s ‘balance of threat’ logic.
His considerations of general socio-economic ‘aggregate power’ and ‘military
capabilities’ when aligned with ‘geographic proximity’ and ‘perceived offensive
intentions’ make China the clear geoeconomic and geopolitical threat for Japan
(Walt, 1985, pp. 8–13). Consequently, Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy is twofold in
terms of balancing theory. First, it seeks to build up its military assets and deploy
them accordingly more widely across the Indo-Pacific—which is a matter of
internal balancing. Second, it seeks security partnerships with various other Indo-
Pacific powers similarly concerned about China’s growing maritime Indo-Pacific
presence—which is a matter of external balancing. In this vein, it is no surprise
that the Chinese state media considered ‘Japan’s “Indo-Pacific” concept another
platform for containing China’ (Lu, 2014), although a better term would be
‘constrainment’. Japan’s success in strengthening security links with Vietnam and
above all India are precisely because Walt’s balance of threat logic (particularly
the criteria of ‘geographic proximity’ and perceived ‘offensive intentions’)
operates equally well with those two states and ensures a sympathetic response by
them to Japan’s Indo-Pacific push.
Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy is then one that explicitly seeks generally to (a)
expand Japan’s economic, military and diplomatic presence across the Indo-
Pacific in order to (b) openly and explicitly gain greater energy security and in
order to (c) tacitly and implicitly restrain China. The article seeks to evaluate how
successful Japan has been in achieving these three Indo-Pacific goals. Since this
article is a study in strategic discourse and application, it deliberately concentrates

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