Why Northeast India Matters For Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision?

by Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah, NESA Alumnus and Professor and Dean, School of Social Sciences, Kaziranga University, Assam, India.

The recent visit of the Ambassador of Japan to Assam is very significant. This comes against the background of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Vision. This development also has to be seen in conjunction with initiatives like the Quad or the (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue).

During his address in Guwahati, the Japanese Ambassador noted that the “North East is situated where India’s Act East Policy and Japan’s vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific converge”. This is very significant as Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision has been its guiding foreign policy tenet ever since the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took over the reins of the government in December 2012 and has continued into the Suga Administration now.

Japan and India have set up the Act-East Forum to collaborate in Northeast India. Another important aspect of the FOIP vision is the Quad, which was first convened on the sidelines of an ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) meeting in Manila. However, soon after the initial meeting of the Quad, its fortunes fell with the members dropping out, mostly due to protestations from Beijing. This in itself was a classic case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater.

There are quite a few issues on which the future course of developments in the Indo-Pacific will depend.

First, the most important issue will be how the U.S. administration under President Joe Biden deals with the China threat. We will have to wait and watch if he continues to keep up the pressure on China, both in the economic and the strategic realm. The leadership of the U.S. will be critical as it is the sole superpower in today’s world. However, the U.S. at the moment seems to be mired in many problems of its own, especially in the domestic realm after the U.S. Presidential elections.

Second, the next important factor will be how countries like India, Japan and Australia react to the China challenge.

Third, it remains to be seen how the Suga Administration in Japan deals with China. Beijing remains a test case for Tokyo as it aims to host the Olympics later this year. In addition, tourists from China form the biggest chunk of incoming tourists to Japan and this is a fact that needs to be noted.

India and Japan In The Indo-Pacific

During his first term in office, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had given a famous speech before the Indian Parliament titled “Confluence of the Two Seas”. In this famous speech he had noted that “the Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A “broader Asia” that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form.”

Since then, the international relations of the Indo-Pacific has changed rapidly. While on the one hand, China has been playing an increasingly assertive role in the Indo-Pacific, the role of the United States has been called into question since it has been mostly busy with developments at home, in line with its “America First” strategy.

Hence, it has been left to the other powers like India, Japan and Australia to take the lead. In the past year, all these countries have had disputes with China. While in the case of India, this had become violent and had led to clashes along the Sino-Indian border earlier last year, Japan has also been at the receiving end of incursions from the Chinese side in the area around the Senkakus.

In the case of Australia too, it has run into issues with China especially after the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked for an independent enquiry into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. Since then, China has retaliated in the economic sphere against Australia.

The increasingly aggressive behaviour exhibited by China is also seen in the conduct of its diplomats who are engaged in the so-called “wolf-warrior” diplomacy as seen in the attacks on other countries, which is by itself very undiplomatic.

Meanwhile, Japan will play a pro-active role under the Suga Administration, especially in the light of its focus on a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”. In addition, it has been pooling its efforts along with countries like India to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It has been more than 75 years since the United Nations was first set up and hence there is an urgent need for its reformation to address current day realities.

Another factor that is bringing these countries closer is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which aims at building a network of communication nodes centred around Beijing’s interests. India, Japan and the U.S. are not a part of the BRI and have expressed a desire to look at alternate ways of creating infrastructure in a responsible way.

There has been growing cooperation between India, Japan, Australia and the United States in other fields too. For example, Australia has now been included as a permanent member of the Malabar naval exercises.  Already a trilateral dialogue has been going on between India, Japan and the United States for quite a while now. There is great complementarity between the interests of India, Japan, Australia and the United States in a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Hence, the recent visit by the Japanese Ambassador to Assam has to be seen in the larger context of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision, where India is a critical component. It is a harbinger of much-closer cooperation between Northeast India and Japan in the times to come.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.