TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood before African leaders in Nairobi two years ago and outlined his vision for a vast stretch of the globe — from the Pacific to the Indian oceans — united by trade and a common political worldview.
It was also a statement on the broader ambitions of Japan, which has watched China dethrone it as Asia’s top economic powerhouse.
Japan’s initiative, called the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, is based on the principles of free trade and freedom of navigation, the rule of law, and the market economy — and is partly a riposte to China’s Belt and Road plan that envisions investment and infrastructure flowing west from Beijing toward Africa and Europe.
Japan is now thinking bigger and with more confidence — challenging the rise of China and trying to adapt to greater isolationism by the Trump administration.
Earlier this month, Japan’s Indo-Pacific plan was backed by leaders across Southeast Asia’s Mekong River region. The pact was bolstered by a promise of investment in “quality infrastructure” that is financially and environmentally sustainable — and backed by greater visibility for Japan’s warships in the sea lanes and ports of Asia.
In an acknowledgment of Washington’s worries about China’s clout, the Japanese plan has also become a key regional policy objective — and slogan — for the United States.
Much of Japan’s bolder approach can be traced back to Abe himself.
Japan’s people, he told the U.N. General Assembly last month, understand that their miraculous postwar prosperity is based on free trade and have “eagerly awaited” their leaders to act as flag-bearers in this century for Asia’s vast new middle class.
“Japan’s responsibility is tremendous indeed,” he said at the United Nations. “That is also Japan’s mission, rooted in its own history.”
One pillar is the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, also known as the TPP-11. It is the successor to the regional trade deal that the Obama administration designed and that was abruptly abandoned during President Trump’s first week in office.
Abe then personally led a massive effort to save the TPP, persuading 11 nations from New Zealand to Canada to sign a new agreement in Santiago, Chile, in March. It is expected to come into force next year.
There is a military side, too.
Japan’s pacifist constitution precludes it developing armed forces with “war potential.” In practice, however, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are well-equipped and becoming more visible in Asia.
This month, Japan’s new amphibious troop brigade took part in joint exercises with U.S. Marines aimed at retaking an “enemy-held” island. In an exercise in the Philippines, Japanese armored vehicles were used on foreign soil for the first time since World War II.
Last month, a Japanese submarine, a helicopter-carrier destroyer and two destroyers conducted live-fire exercises in the South China Sea in what was seen as a message to China, which claims full sovereignty over the sea. Other nations, including Japan, have strongly objected to China’s military reach there.
The submarine then docked in Vietnam, while the surface flotilla headed to the Philippines and Indonesia before conducting more war games with the British, Sri Lankan and Indian navies.
“Officially the government doesn’t say this is about China, but certainly this is about China,” said Narushige Michishita, director of security and international studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “By maintaining the balance of power in the region, Japan is trying to encourage China to walk a more cooperative path.”
China was also the elephant in the room at this month’s Japan-Mekong summit, where leaders from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam joined Abe in expressing concerns about “land reclamations” and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at the Rand Corp., said Abe has worked hard to unite Southeast Asian nations behind a shared commitment to a rules-based order “so they could stand up to China.”
“That’s something that’s been undervalued or underappreciated here in the U.S. — that Japan has taken a really strong role on this, in pushing and promoting the rule of law,” Hornung said.
Resentment over Japan’s wartime record was one reason that Tokyo had played a more passive role in Asia, letting the United States take the lead and lending its support more discreetly, experts say. But with the United States leaning away under Trump, Japan has been forced to lean forward a little more.
The fact that Abe, unlike a string of short-lived predecessors, has enjoyed six years in office without a constant battle for political survival has also given him the luxury of developing a vision for the region, Hornung said.
“Abe’s confidence seems to be a huge driving factor here,” he said. “Either by need or by desire, Japan is trying to step into a larger role that we haven’t been familiar with.”
This month, Japan agreed to deepen defense ties with Australia and to cooperate with New Zealand on security and development from the South China Sea to the Pacific islands.
Tokyo cannot compete with Beijing in the amount of money it is spending globally, although commitments to invest $110 billion in Asian infrastructure over five years and $30 billion in Africa are significant sums.
Airports, ports and roads from Papua New Guinea to Kenya have received Japanese investment, while India is getting a Japanese bullet train link between Ahmedabad and Mumbai.
But what sets Japan apart, the government repeatedly insists, is the “quality,” rather than quantity, of its investment, along with a commitment to environmental and financial sustainability while not creating unmanageable debt burdens. In Tokyo’s emphasis on this approach, it is hard not to see a dig at China’s Belt and Road, which has been criticized for failing on precisely those fronts, experts say.
Meanwhile, Japan is managing to improve relations with China, with Abe scheduled on Tuesday to make the first official visit by a Japanese leader to Beijing in seven years.
That stands in contrast with the Trump administration’s more confrontational approach to China and reflects the fact that Japan can’t afford conflict with its neighbor, said Ryo Sahashi, director of the Center for Asian Studies at Kanagawa University.
But Sahashi laments the fact that Japan has deepened ties with autocratic governments in Cambodia and Myanmar, undermining its commitment to a “free” Indo-Pacific.
“Democracy around the world is at a turning point, and we have to be more robust, more assertive in democracy promotion,” he said.
But Takashi Kawakami, president of the Institute for World Studies at Takushoku University, said Abe is smart to pursue a “very realistic” approach to diplomacy to ensure Japan’s survival in worrying times.
“I get a sense that Japan seems to be shifting toward more independent diplomacy, away from one solely dependent on the U.S.-Japan alliance, or toward one that is the U.S.-Japan alliance ‘plus,’ as it were,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included a photo of the 2012 Greater Mekong Sub-region Summit and incorrectly identified then-Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda as Shinzo Abe. The photo has been replaced with one of the 2018 Mekong summit.
Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.