Abe’s Indo-Pacific “Security Diamond” Begins to Shine


Last December Prime Minister Abe Shinzō wrapped up his 2015 diplomatic agenda with two events highlighting his “diamond” strategy for regional maritime security: a state visit to India and talks with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Tokyo.

The concept of a partnership between Japan, the United States, Australia, and India began to take on substance after Abe’s visit to Washington in April 2015, which yielded a key agreement on upgrading and strengthening the Japan-US alliance. Tokyo and Washington are both looking for ways to contain China, whose expansionist activity in the South China Sea and elsewhere threatens to overturn a basic tenet of the international order: the freedom of the seas established during the golden age of Dutch maritime power in the seventeenth century.

Shared Heritage of Freedom of the Seas

The seventeenth century was a time of unprecedented growth in world trade, when advances in navigation and a spirit of exploration bore fruit in a new level of commercial and cultural exchange between East and West. During this period the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius championed the cause of free trade and freedom of the seas as Spain and Portugal, the first European powers to arrive in the Western Pacific, tried to monopolize the trade routes they had established.

Grotius argued that free trade must be the preeminent principle, and that no country had a right to interfere with navigation on the high seas. Grotius’s ideas contributed to the expansion of Dutch trade throughout the Indo-Pacific region and were eventually recognized as key principles of international law—a valued component of our common global heritage.

Defending the Freedom of Asia’s Seas

These laws and norms have withstood four centuries of global change and upheaval. Yet now they are in jeopardy. China is using coercive means to overturn the traditional international maritime order of the region with its aggressive naval and territorial expansion.

China has been flexing its naval muscle while building artificial islands and runways in a bid to control the waters of the South China Sea. The Chinese have either built or are currently building facilities capable of serving as naval ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, dramatically expanding their presence around the Indian Ocean. These ports are to serve as hubs for President Xi Jinping’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative to link the regions of the ancient Silk Road by modern land and sea routes, but they are also seen as key components of China’s alleged “string of pearls” naval strategy.

In response to such developments, Prime Minister Abe has moved rapidly in recent months to build closer ties with India, which has a long history of nonalignment and omni-directional diplomacy. Since Narendra Modi took office as prime minister in June 2014, these efforts to step up collaboration have expanded from the economic sphere into the realm of security.

Abe’s push for an Indo-Pacific strategic framework has attracted growing attention since he launched his second administration in December 2012. However, his bid to forge such a partnership actually began five years earlier, when he visited India during his first tenure as prime minister. On August 22, 2007, Abe delivered a speech to the Indian Parliament titled the “Confluence of the Two Seas,” inspired by the title of a seventeenth-century book by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh. In this speech, Abe addressed the Indian people as a whole, sharing his vision of a Japan-India “strategic global partnership” dedicated to nurturing an open and transparent Indo-Pacific maritime zone as part of a “broader Asia.”*

The “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech reflects the key contributions of two advisors whose geopolitical expertise and sweeping strategic vision have played an important role in Abe’s foreign policy behind the scenes. As the articulation of a new strategic concept, the speech was a perfect marriage of the intuitive insight of Kanehara Nobukatsu (currently deputy chief cabinet secretary) and the inspired communication skills of Taniguchi Tomohiko (currently special cabinet advisor). The Indian politicians who attended Abe’s speech in the summer in 2007 found it deeply moving and greeted it with thundering applause. Unfortunately, by this time Abe was already in the grip of the ailment that would force him to resign a month later. The “Confluence of the Two Seas” was the final foreign policy statement of the first Abe cabinet.

Abe’s Sharp-Edged Diamond

The Indo-Pacific strategy lay dormant until Abe’s miraculous political comeback more than five years later. Then it received a new lease on life as a linchpin of Japanese foreign policy under the second Abe administration, launched in December 2012.

The concept reemerged in a far more explicit and sharp-edged form in an English-language opinion piece by Abe titled “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” which appeared on the website of the nonprofit Project Syndicate. Although apparently submitted to the website in mid-November 2012, prior to Japan’s general election, it was released on December 27, 2012, the very day Abe launched his second administration.

In the essay, Abe states that “peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean are inseparable from peace, stability, and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean.” He goes on to warn that the South China Sea is on the verge of becoming a “Lake Beijing” (China’s territorial sea) and asserts that “Japan must not yield to the Chinese government’s daily exercises in coercion around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.” Coming from the newly appointed prime minister, such blunt talk was considered injudicious, and Abe’s aides, fearful of the impact on relations with Beijing, were at great pains to downplay the piece and control the damage.

Regardless of Abe’s original intent in submitting the essay, the timing of its publication was far from ideal. At that point in time, Abe’s rhetoric concerning “China’s naval and territorial expansion” was outrunning the reality. And given the international media’s laser focus on Abe’s hawkish foreign policy stance, the prime minister’s advisors were understandably concerned about the impact of the piece. At the urging of his staff, Abe scrapped the term “security diamond,” and his government never used it again. Nonetheless, the cabinet officially endorsed a quadrilateral framework for security cooperation between Japan, the United States, India, and Australia, which Abe broached in delicate, diplomatically correct terms in his foreign policy speech of January 2013, “The Bounty of the Open Seas: Five New Principles for Japanese Diplomacy.”

Reality Catches Up with Rhetoric

Within three years of Abe’s controversial “security diamond” proposal, China’s aggressive territorial expansion in the South China Sea had accelerated dramatically. In the spring of 2015, the media reported that the Chinese were reclaiming land for airstrips on reefs and islets in the disputed Spratly Islands and even building up islands where no land had previously existed.

In October 2015, the United States finally took action with the deployment of a guided missile destroyer to conduct “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea. Challenging Beijing’s territorial claim, the destroyer passed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of the artificial islands China had built in the Spratlys.

Soon thereafter Abe sprang into action. During Modi's state visit in September 2014, Abe had already secured an agreement to upgrade the Japan-India relationship to a “special strategic and global partnership.” But Abe’s highly productive visit to India near the end of 2015 built substantially on this achievement. In addition to a memorandum of understanding on the peaceful use of nuclear energy and a plan for Japan to finance and build India’s first “bullet train,” the two leaders signed a number of pacts significantly strengthening bilateral security relations, including an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment technology and another on the protection of classified military information.

“Today marks the beginning of a new Japan-India era. We were able to take [the relationship] to a new level,” Abe declared (with an understandable hint of hyperbole) at the joint press conference following his talks with Modi.

Less than a week later, Abe sat down with Australian Prime Minister Turnbull to solidify ties with the southernmost point of the Indo-Pacific “security diamond.” No doubt Australia’s foreign ministry was thinking of China when it touted the trip as the prime minister’s first stand-alone visit to any country outside of Oceania since his election the previous September. In the joint statement issued by the two leaders following their summit, they agreed on the importance of deepening the “special relationship” between their two nations, with explicit reference to Japan-Australia security cooperation in the context of Abe’s policy of “proactive contribution to peace” and the recent passage of new security legislation geared to that goal. They also agreed on the value of trilateral security cooperation between Japan, Australia, and the United States and of the new trilateral dialogue between Japan, Australia, and India—an implicit affirmation of Abe’s vision for a quadrilateral security partnership spanning the Indian and Pacific oceans.

More than eight years after Abe’s “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech in India, the concept of an Indo-Pacific strategic framework has begun to have a real impact on Japan’s intellectual community. At the political and policy level as well, the “security diamond” is gradually revealing its value as it projects its form onto the Indo-Pacific region. As China’s “string of pearls” strategy and island construction betray the aggressively expansionist impulse behind its One Belt, One Road initiative, the security diamond connecting Japan, the United States, Australia, and India is taking shape as well, though its outlines remain faint.

A Fragile Framework

But there are inherent weaknesses in this “democratic security diamond.” Although Prime Minister Modi has begun to steer Indian security policy toward closer cooperation with Japan and the United States, his most urgent priority is the domestic economy: nurturing industry, sustaining growth, and reducing poverty. China’s economic contribution is vital if Modi’s government is to make satisfactory progress toward these goals. The prime minister cannot ignore the voice of the Indian people or that of his own political base. This is why, in the words of one Japanese diplomatic source, “He has set the course [for cooperation], but he’s still hanging back.”

Nor can we be entirely confident of Australia’s commitment. Although Turnbull has thus far placed priority on relations with Japan, he does not have the close relationship with Abe that his predecessor Tony Abbot cultivated. And Turnbull’s personal interest in and connection with China are well known. For this reason, some may be inclined to view his current stance as a passing phase reflecting China’s economic slowdown. Moreover, the diamond is not complete without the line connecting Australia and India. Modi’s visit to Australia in 2014 was the first such visit by an Indian prime minister in 28 years. This was an important step toward strengthening bilateral relations, but the two governments still have a long way to go.

Prime Minister Abe made concrete progress toward the realization of his long-cherished diamond strategy during 2015, but the initiative still faces daunting obstacles. In the meantime, Japan and its partners in the region will have their hands full coping with China’s bid to overturn the traditional maritime order of the Indo-Pacific.

* “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. Our two countries have the ability—and the responsibility—to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparence. . . . By Japan and India coming together in this way, this ‘broader Asia’ will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia.” From "Confluence of the Two Seas,"
Speech by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō to the Parliament of the Republic of India, August 22, 2007.

(Original Japanese article was published on January 6, 2016. Banner photo: Prime Minister Abe and Indian Prime Minister Modi make ritual offerings to the Ganges during Abe’s state visit in December 2015: ©Jiji)

United States China Australia India Abe Shinzō Asia-Pacific South China Sea Indian Ocean national security Indo-Pacific Narendra Modi