US President Trump recently announced that a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) would be an American policy priority in Asia. It is a strategic vision linking Japan in East Asia to India in South Asia in an effort to maintain a rules-based international order.

FOIP soon attracted much media attention, as it was a forceful response to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, and possibly a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) stretching from Asia to Europe.

FOIP is not a new concept – it was originally advocated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2006. India and the Pacific Ocean regions can be integrated into a strategic area maintained by like-minded democratic countries such as Japan, India, the United States, and Australia. The United States didn’t endorse the idea at that time, but the Trump administration has supported this strategic vision, which is aiming at countering China’s economic and military rise.

The Indo-Pacific strategy might provide opportunities for Japan, the United States, and other Asian countries. At this stage, however, the proposal is encountering serious challenges. The question of how to turn the Indo-Pacific concept into a reality has sparked scholarly and policy debate in the Asian political arena.

It is an especially pressing issue for the major powers in Asia because the success of the Indo-Pacific idea hinges on the formation of a common identity  – but it remains to be seen whether India, Japan and Indonesia can move beyond national interest and reach a collective understanding. This article offers a roadmap for Japanese foreign policy in terms of executing the Indo-Pacific strategy in Asia, focusing on connectivity, diversity, and cooperation.

There are heated policy debates in Japan right now, as some worry that the participation of the United States and Australia might dilute Japan’s role in FOIP. This article proposes a feasible way for the Japanese government to resume rhetorical leadership in formulating the Indo-Pacific strategy. Two elements from the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” – rejecting Western dominance and gaining independence via diversity – provide the dos and don’ts for Japan’s policy discourse. Specifically, revisiting the rhetoric and rationale behind Japan’s discourse on Pan-Asiaism helps the Abe administration seize the strategic opportunity to gain resonance in both Japan’s domestic audience and abroad.

When faced with intense power competition between China and the United States, the Japanese government can minimize the negative effects of being portrayed as an expansionist power by partnering with developing countries in positive ways.

Lessons from pre-WWII Japan

During the 1930-40s, Japan advocated the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” (hereafter Co-prosperity Sphere), a regional concept extending from East Asia to Southeast Asia and India Oceania. It aimed to unite Asian countries led by Japan but free from Western colonial powers, as then-prime minister Fumimaro Konoe strongly indicated that Japan should “reject Anglo-American-based pacifism” at that time.

However, this initiative was later appropriated by Japanese militarists to support empire-building and territorial expansion. With the defeat of Japan at the end of WWII, the concept of the Co-prosperity Sphere was still Japan’s unfulfilled aspiration despite its economic growth. At first glance, what Japan can learn from the past is not to challenge the world order and to actively integrate itself with liberal institutions.

However, another aspect of the co-prosperity concept – diversity and development – sheds light on how Japan could potentially shape future FOIP strategy. Japan’s diplomacy in Asia and beyond might gain wider support by revisiting its previous discourse on prosperity, integration, and independence among Asian countries; Prime Minister Abe can elaborate on these while advocating Indo-Pacific strategy.

Connectivity with diversity

What Abe can learn from the Co-prosperity Sphere lies in building an inclusive and diverse approach to development for countries in Asia and beyond. The original concept attempted to shift Asian countries from Western domination toward independence, and the essence of the idea still has resonance in Asian countries when they are faced with intense power competition between China and the United States. Japan, in this sense, should serve as a reliable mediator between the developing countries and the great powers.

For example, Japan can actively promote the Asia-Africa Corridor (AAGC) with India to strengthen economic cooperation and sustainable development in Africa. Unlike the Belt and Road Initiative, which is focused on energy and infrastructure, both Japan and India can borrow the rhetoric of “independence and diversity” from the Co-prosperity Sphere in the development projects of the AAGC. Tailored developmental plans suit the special needs of African countries, as most of them are undergoing different stages of economic development.

Both Japan and India prefer to enjoy greater room to maneuver to avoid the entanglement of conflicts between China and the United States

Moreover, India might also benefit from such rhetoric of diversity and connectivity, as it has a long-lasting tradition of maintaining independence in foreign policy. Both Japan and India prefer to enjoy greater room to maneuver to avoid the entanglement of conflicts between China and the United States.

Few Japanese talk about the FOIP in the context of the Co-prosperity Sphere because they consider them opposing concepts. These assumptions are based on the conventional explanation that the Co-prosperity Sphere is aimed at challenging the Western-led international order, without paying equal attention to the more promising yet unrealized aspects: cultural diversity, regional connectivity, and economic development. Japan and the developing countries can be deeply connected and thrive together.

Avoid expansionist rhetoric

The Co-prosperity Sphere rhetoric highlights how Japan’s wartime history showed that nationalistic discourse can narrow such a foreign policy idea down to “Japan’s interests,” or make such discourse appear to be merely propaganda for Asian countries. Therefore, the substance of Indo-Pacific strategy should not provoke China and alarm other Asian countries that were colonized by Japan.

More importantly, Japan needs to refrain from making official statements targeting China. For example, Tokyo’s previous “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” message was directed at Beijing, and this rhetoric implicitly assumed that a rising China might pose a threat to Asia.

The current discourse of the FIOP emphasizes the spreading of western liberal ideas such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law to Asia and beyond. Such a rhetorical strategy easily leads to the opposite effects of creating regional tensions between FOIP members and China that undermine the prospects for development and diversity. Japan can, and should, be actively involved in the reshaping of FOIP policy discourse because the unfulfilled promise of “connectivity with diversity” avoids targeting China and opens up room for cooperation.

As Prime Minister Abe put it so well at the Asian-African summit, Asia and Africa are vibrant soil for development. Japan and India can be reliable partners for developing countries in those two regions. Two essences of the co-prosperity concepts provide insights into how the Japanese elites can become rhetorical entrepreneurs advocating ideas and policies in Asia and beyond. Japan certainly can play a bigger role in the making of an Indo-Pacific strategy, so long as it can learn from history,