By Yasushi Sugimoto, Takushi Ohashi
During his present trip to Asia, U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated his support for the “strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific” advocated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, bringing the Japan-U.S. alliance to a new stage.
The geographical coverage of the alliance has expanded gradually from the “Far East” during the early years of the Cold War to a broad area straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans. With the Chinese military flexing its muscles in the Indian Ocean in mind, the two countries will work together to secure ports that the U.S. forces can use freely and strengthen cooperation with India, a major regional power.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono and other Japanese officials have been promoting the Indo-Pacific strategy after this was proposed by Abe in August 2016.
The U.S. side began to respond to Japan’s advocacy in mid-October this year when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stressed the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific in his speech.
When Tillerson apologized for borrowing the term in early November, Kono told him: “That’s Okay. Go ahead and use this term as much as you want.”
The geographical coverage of the security alliance was once defined by the government as the “Far East” north of the Philippines based on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty that took effect in 1952. However, the Eisaku Sato cabinet expanded this to the “Far East region” in 1965 to account for the Vietnam War.
The joint declaration issued by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Bill Clinton in 1996 stated that the Japan-U.S. alliance shall maintain “stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The Japan-U.S. summit on Nov. 6 further expanded the geographical coverage.
The two leaders agreed to take concrete measures to actualize the Indo-Pacific strategy in three areas: ensuring the rule of law and freedom of navigation, enhancing linkage of infrastructure construction and other undertakings, and support for the improvement of coast guard capabilities of countries in this region. Infrastructure construction here is also meant to keep in check China’s efforts to build port facilities for use by its military in Sri Lanka and other countries. All three areas are security-related.
A government official involved in formulating the Indo-Pacific strategy says that “this was premised on the weight of U.S. military presence from the beginning.” The U.S. forces have a base in Diego Garcia which watches over the security of sea lanes, while the Self-Defense Forces are engaged in anti-piracy and logistic supply operations in the Indian Ocean. Japan and the U.S. envision greater cooperation in this region.
The government says that this strategy “is not a hostile policy against any third country,” but there is no denying that it is meant as a countermeasure against China’s continuing military expansion and acquisition of operational bases in the Indian Ocean. The government is also aiming to win over regional power India to Japan’s side to participate in quadrilateral strategic talks among Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India, in its effort to achieve a more favorable balance of power. (Slightly abridged)