National Interest

How Five Days in March Will Change Japan’s Foreign Policy

Changes include the normalization of Japan-Korean relations, a growing convergence of security in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and more.

Senior Fellow, Japan Chair
04.03.2023 Kishida.jpg
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a press conference in Tokyo, Japan, on March 17, 2023. (Yoshikazu Tsuno via Getty Images)

Vladimir Lenin once observed that “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” And then there were Five Days in March, when a new and promising future began to unfold—one marked by broad-based cooperation among democratic allies and a growing awareness of the convergence of security in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.

The Five Days began on March 16, when Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida welcomed the Republic of Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol, the first visit by a Korean president in twelve years. The summit came about as a result of Yoon’s decision to move beyond the past, reflected in the contentious dispute over wartime forced labor, to focus on the future in the Korea-Japan relations and the development of political, economic, and security ties. The summit marked a return to the “Future-Oriented Relationship,” outlined in the joint statement at the Kim-Obuchi Summit of 1998.

On March 17, the defense ministers of Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy met in Tokyo to discuss the basic design of a sixth-generation fighter aircraft to be co-produced under the Global Compact Air Program, agreed to in December 2022. The meeting followed the January 10 announcement by Prime Ministers Kishida and Giorgia Meloni to upgrade Japan-Italy ties to the level of a strategic partnership.

On March 18, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Tokyo to participate in the first Japan-Germany Inter-Governmental Consultations focused on economic security. Both governments condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, expressed support for the rules-based international economic and political order, and opposition to economic coercion. The governments also agreed to take steps to strengthen defense and security cooperation and develop their strategic dialogue. Their joint statement expressed the recognition that “the security of Europe and that of the Indo-Pacific are closely linked.”

On March 20, Kishida, in New Delhi, announced “Japan’s New Plan for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific – Together with India as an Indispensable Partner.”

As for the New Plan, Kishida explained the present need, an era in which there is no agreement on what the international order should be. At this point “FOIP is a vision that is in fact gaining in relevance…a visionary concept…whose fundamental concept remains the same…We will enhance the connectivity of the Indo-Pacific region…into a place that values, freedom, the rule of law, free from force or coercion, and make it prosperous.” The prime minister set out “three Principles for Peace and Rules for Prosperity to include “respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and opposition to unilateral changes in the status quo by force.” He condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and expressed Japan’s opposition to “any unilateral changes into the status quo by force anywhere in the world.”

Kishida committed Japan’s economic, financial, and technological resources to address issues of concern across the Global South, including, high-quality infrastructure, health, the environment, digital connectivity, security in the maritime domain, and the strengthening of maritime law enforcement capabilities. The New Plan would highlight diversity, inclusion, openness, and equal partnership.

So where are these Five Days in March heading?

In Northeast Asia, the normalization of the ROK-Japan relationship has opened the door to increased security, diplomatic, and economic cooperation. In the realm of security, it has enhanced deterrence against the mutually shared threat posed by North Korea’s rapidly expanding missile and nuclear programs. Normalization has also expanded opportunities for trilateral cooperation with the United States, not only in Northeast Asia but also in support of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific as outlined in the Phnom Penh Statement on U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific, released on November 13, 2022.

Meanwhile, Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom’s agreement on the co-production of a sixth-generation fighter speaks to the increasing engagement of European democracies in the Indo-Pacific. Over the past several years, governments in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK as well as the European Union have released their respective Indo-Pacific strategies. Each focused on the importance of stability in the Indo-Pacific to European prosperity and on the challenges posed by China to regional security and the rules-based international order.

The UK’s Integrated security review of 2021 announced a “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific, an engagement marked by “a greater and more persistent presence than any European country.” The UK’s Integrated Refresh Review 2023, called attention to “a new network of ‘Atlantic-Pacific’ partnerships, based on a shared view that the prosperity and security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are inextricably linked.” The 2023 document moved engagement from a “tilt” to engagement, as a “stronger and enduring, and a permanent pillar of the UK’s international policy.” The AUKUS agreement is a case in point.

That Kishida chose New Delhi as the launch site for his New Free and Open Indo-Pacific Plan honors the history of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. New Delhi was, as Kishida acknowledged, the stage on which former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set out the initial vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Likewise, it reflects the long-standing Japan-India friendship, having grown in strategic significance during the Abe-Modi years as both Tokyo and New Delhi became increasingly concerned about China’s increasing assertiveness across the Indo-Pacific region. And, it marked a turn to the Global South and recognition of India’s leading role there.

The Five Days in March, capped by Kishida’s visit to Ukraine, again underscored the growing convergence of security in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, those Five Days in March also played into the three days in Moscow of the Putin-Xi Summit and offered a clear choice—an international order governed by authoritarianism and control or a future defined by freedom and openness.

Read in National Interest.