Featured Stories

Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision: Global Commerce, Maritime Security and Implications for Africa

Author: Gerhard van Niekerk

This article draws on research presented at a Research Forum on Japanese Industry and Development in Africa, organised by Stellenbosch University Japan Centre and made possible by support by the Toshiba International Foundation. The virtual forum, held on the 26th and 29th of January 2024, focused on the role of Japanese industry in Africa’s development in past and present and drew contributions from researchers in Japan and South Africa. My research centres on Japan’s notion of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, how it relates to Japan’s foreign policy, and what the implications are from an African perspective.

Defining the Free and Open Indo-Pacific

The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)  functions as Japan’s foreign policy vision for how it seeks to influence the Indo-Pacific region according to its interests. In academic analysis and commentary there is often debate on the extent to which the FOIP currently takes on form as foreign policy strategy, but it can be described as a geopolitical “vision” with ideals that the state seeks to promote in the realms of interstate trade and international relations. The FOIP encompasses various actions undertaken by Japan, primarily by the state but also from private enterprises, either as a consequence of state efforts or as encouraged by the state. Essentially, the FOIP aims to preserve freedom of navigation in the Indian and Pacific Oceans while promoting economic interconnectivity to expedite globalisation.[1]

The concept of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific aligns closely with the principles of the Liberal International Order (LIO), emphasising free trade, state sovereignty, freedom of navigation, and cooperation. The LIO, despite its perceived flaws, effectively facilitates globalisation and maintains the global commercial system. Japan, as a major ally of the United States (US), advocates for the ideals of the LIO through the FOIP,[2] as it is existentially dependent on freedom of navigation and free trade due to its status as an island state reliant on imports for food and energy. Therefore, in Africa, Japan sees opportunities along its eastern coastline to mitigate its resource dependency. This strategic positioning allows Japan to address its vulnerabilities and enhance its economic interests.[3]

Hence, in the quest of furthering the LIO, the FOIP concept has come as an attenuated extension of US foreign policy; the reason for its diluted formulation can be attributed to the East Asian context. Originally, in 2016, the FOIP’s norms were heavily emphasised by democracy, and the role of the states that form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), those being Japan, Australia, the US, and India. This was not particularly popular in East and Southeast Asia, after which Japanese policymakers were motivated to reassess the FOIP’s norms and adjusted them to a more universal focus on “rule of law”.[4] This was a progressive shift from a highly ambitious and idealistic vision with limited potential for success, to a broad vision which states with even adversarial views to Japan could agree upon. This was stated outright by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2017.[5]

Recognising the limitations of a strong emphasis on democratic values, Japan adopted a strategy of “tactical hedging.” This approach involves balancing alliances with Western-aligned states and integrating the preferences of East and Southeast Asian countries, especially through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was later granted centrality in the FOIP over QUAD.[6] The shift towards a rules-based approach in foreign policy discussions reflects Japan’s efforts to foster regional cooperation amid concern over increased tensions in the region.[7]

Maritime Security

Japanese reliance on open channels for maritime trade cannot be overstated. Indeed, seaborne shipping carries over 99 percent of Japan’s overall trading volume. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF) primary duty is the securitisation of the Eurasian rim in order to secure free trade. Therefore, it is a fundamental part of the state’s national security. The US has, as the guarantor of global free trade, become Japan’s closest ally in this domain too. Under the long-standing security alliance, the duo form a symbiotic relationship in East Asia, where the US provides long-term deterrence from belligerent actors in the region and ensures open sea lanes. Japan, in return, provides key locations for military bases to the US in order to ensure that the global superpower has a permanent presence in the region.[8]

Japan’s relationship with the US, and the subsequent guarantee to conduct free trade, is therefore of existential importance to the island nation. However, according to some commentators,[9] the US is possibly shifting towards a more inward-looking foreign policy. Some argue that the US appears to be stepping back from its role as the guardian of free navigation. For example, there appears to be a significant shift in the composition of the US Navy, favouring fewer, but more powerful, super carrier vessels over versatile destroyers for sea patrols. This restructuring suggests a deliberate reduction in the number of global US commitments.[10]

The US’s possession of 14 super carriers offers significant naval firepower, yet they are not commonly dispersed, indicating a shift in naval strategy with noteworthy implications for global commerce. In the past, where the US, with the help of its allies, could patrol vast swathes of the seas, it is now limited to, at most, but highly unlikely, 14 locations.[11] Recent events, such as the Red Sea crisis, where Houthi rebels seized a Japanese-operated ship, highlight the potential disruptions to trade routes and the necessity for strategic decisions by affected parties.[12] As such, a decreased US commitment to facilitating freedom of navigation will have large implication for states that are as dependent on free trade as Japan.

Japan’s response to the Red Sea crisis, opting for negotiation over military intervention, underscores the complexities of dealing with non-state actors such as the Houthi rebels.[13] The intensification of the situation in the Middle East, especially around the Bab-el Mandab strait, could result in major disruptions to global trade, as seen by the temporary transportation of goods around the coast of Africa.[14] This is where the FOIP’s key values of freedom of navigation and rules-based engagement become particularly important.

Meanwhile, tensions in the South China Sea pose a different, but equally significant, challenge to maritime security. Recent developments in East Asia, including strained China-Taiwan relations, prompt calls for adherence to international maritime laws. Although the situation has never seriously threatened trade in the region, as this would arguably harm the Chinese economy more than that of its neighbours, the current tensions have demonstrated the disruptive potential for the region.[15] Successfully implementing the FOIP will therefore require the skills to successfully deal with belligerent non-state actors and powerful regional states.

China’s assertive actions in the region heighten concerns among Japanese policymakers about regional stability. Consequently, fostering consensus on rules-based behaviour emerges as a central theme in Japan’s future foreign policy agenda. As the LIO order evolves and the US redefines its global commitments, maintaining maritime security and navigating regional dynamics become paramount for Japan’s economic interests and geopolitical stability. This will require Japan to step up its capabilities to physically patrol the high seas and use soft power influence to dissuade different actors from causing disruption.[16]

Examples of the FOIP in Practice

As previously mentioned, the FOIP is an amorphous concept and an understanding is required of its goals and values in order to identify it in practice. There is no physical entity labelled as the FOIP, it is more akin to a statement of intent by Japan that describes its ideal future global system. It is essentially an orientation mechanism for how Japan deals with states, and a guide to how these interactions are designed to achieve Japan’s goals.[17]

One major mechanism through which Japan intends to achieve this, especially in East Africa, as it makes up the western border of the Indian Ocean, is through development assistance. As Japan forms part of the Organisation for Economic and Cooperation’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), its Official Development Assistance (ODA) conforms to norms that by default  align with the LIO. By this, part of Japan’s ODA is motivated by the desire to promote transparency, rules-based engagement and interconnectivity, through the leverage it gains from providing development assistance. In more recent years, Japan’s ODA has also started to emphasise the requirement that the end products are debt sustainable and are able to fund themselves effectively.[18]

Such projects need to fit Japan’s ODA-defined goals for the region, which are typically critical infrastructure for logistics or energy production purposes. Examples of this in Kenya are, the upgrades made to Port Mombasa,[19] the construction of a bridge to Mombasa Island to replace the overburdened ferry services,[20] and the construction of a special economic zone, Dongo Kundu, with a small port, to increase production in Mombasa.[21] The effects of such interactions have been fruitful; Kenya has become a tentative supporter of the FOIP vision, and is actively dedicating its limited naval resources to fighting piracy and patrolling its seas.[22] Furthermore, Kenya has pledged ground forces to Sudan to stabilise the state’s domestic tensions.[23] These are progressive achievements for the FOIP vision to reach actualisation.

Beyond cooperating with regional actors, Japan’s Self Defense Force’s (JSDF) first permanent military base on foreign soil, in Djibouti, is significant. This base was primarily created to deal with non-state actors involved in piracy off the coast of Somalia, but have also been involved in rescuing Japanese citizens and protecting Japanese assets in northern Africa.[24] This is an example of how “soft” norm promotion underpinned by the values of the LIO can also be buttressed by more direct measures.  

The FOIP is designed as a supportive structure to promote the values of the LIO in a cooperative manner by building capacity with developing states. Or, at times, relying on the hard power of allies. It is therefore an ambitious strategy, likely mirrored by the interests and efforts of other Western states, but due to Japan’s specific geopolitical position, its goals have some existential purpose. The FOIP’s vision, based as it is on uncontroversial – but not uncontested – norms and values, should have broad appeal, but it comes at a time when the tide of polarisation is rising in world politics.


[1]Satake, T & Hemmings, J. (2018) ‘Japan–Australia security cooperation in the bilateral and multilateral contexts’, International Affairs, 94(4), p. 823.

[2] Satake, T. and Sahashi, R. (2020) ‘The Rise of China and Japan’s ‘Vision’ for Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, Journal of Contemporary China, 30(127), pp. 21.

[3] Hosoya, Y. (2019). FOIP 2.0: The Evolution ofJapan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Asia-Pacific Review, 26(1). p. 24.

[4] Koga, K. (2018) ‘Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ Strategy: Tokyo’s Tactical Hedging and the Implications for ASEAN’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 41(2), p. 299.

[5] Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Japan-U.S. Working Lunch and Japan-U.S. Summit Meeting”, 6 November 2017, [Accessed 17 Apr. 2024].

[6] Ibid. p. 287.

[7] Hosoya, Y. (2019). FOIP 2.0: The Evolution ofJapan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Asia-Pacific Review, 26(1). p. 24.

[8] Kotani, T. (2011). Freedom of Navigation and the US-Japan Alliance: Addressing the Threat of Legal Warfare. Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange. p. 2.

[9] See for example Zeihan, P. (2023). Naval Power in the Pacific: China vs. The United States. [online] Zeihan on Geopolitics. Available at: [Accessed 21 Apr. 2024].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Bacrot, C. and Faure, M-A. (2024). Red Sea Crisis and implications for trade facilitation in Africa. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Apr. 2024].

[13] Aljazeera (2023). Japan seeking talks with Houthi hijackers of Red Sea Israeli-linked ship. [online] Al Jazeera. Available at: [Accessed 21 Apr. 2024].

[14] Van Dalen, D., Ndhlovu, M. and Gopaldas, R. (2024). Impact of Red Sea crisis on Africa – red flag or red herring? [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Apr. 2024].

[15] Tkacik, M. (2018). Understanding China’s goals and strategy in the South China Sea: bringing context to a revisionist systemic challenge–intentions and impact. Defense & Security Analysis, 34(4).

[16] Hosoya, Y. (2019). FOIP 2.0: The Evolution ofJapan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. Asia-Pacific Review, 26(1). p. 22.

[17] Satake, T. and Sahashi, R. (2020) ‘The Rise of China and Japan’s ‘Vision’ for Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, Journal of Contemporary China, 30(127), pp. 21.

[18] See for example ‘White Paper on Development Cooperation 2020 – Japan’s International Cooperation,’ Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Available at: [Accessed 25 Apr. 2024]; and c.f. Japan’s promotion of the G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment.

[19] Lamarque, H., & Nugent, P. (2022) Transport Corridors in Africa. Melton: James Curry, p. 240.

[20] Kenyan Department of Transport (2024). Mombasa Gate Bridge | Ministry of Roads and Transport. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2024].

[21] The Government of Kenya (2020) Why Dongo Kundu. [Online] Special Economic Zones Authority. Available at: [Accessed 30 Jul. 2023].

[22] Gathii, J. T. (2017) ‘Kenya’s Piracy Prosecution’, American Journal of International Law, 104(3), p. 422.; Kinyua, B. G. (2021) Kenya’s Role in the Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. In: Reflections on the Indo-Pacific: Persepctives from Africa. London: Observer Research Foundation, p. 9.

[23] Umemoto, H. and Shimbun, Y. (2023). Tokyo, Nairobi to Cooperate on Indo-Pacific Framework, Mombasa Port Development. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2024].

[24] Associated Press (2016). Violence spurs Japan to evacuate workers from South Sudan. [online] AP News. Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2024].