To counter China, Japan preparing to play a more dominant role in Indian Ocean/ Indo Pacific

Japan now wants to provide its leadership role in the region for the Western world. Washington, which was so long seeking to counter China through India, has now turned to Japan as it felt that New Delhi was not living up to that role.

Fumiko Yamada Jun 01, 2023
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio with US President Joseph R. Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

Japan and the United States have maintained very close relations since World War II. The US-Japan relationship, based on shared economic growth, security interests, and regional stability, has essentially become an effective means of expanding US regional hegemony. Because of Japan's reliance on US military forces for its security and defense due to post-World War II treaties and agreements, it became easier for the US to use Japan in the prevailing global order to suit its strategic and economic interests. That is why Japan is Washington's most important ally in the Asia-Pacific region.

This alliance has now become even more important. The US and Japanese Indo-Pacific strategies are designed to achieve much the same goal. Japan's influence in the region due to the commercial and developmental investments Tokyo has made will help overcome weaknesses in Washington's foreign policy. The US now realizes that Washington lacks the leverage it needs to pursue its interests and strategies across the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific region. But Japan has a great reputation throughout the region. Due to Japan's military limitations, there have not been any hegemonic fears about Tokyo's intentions in the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, especially in South and Southeast Asia.

Japan is now trying to change its global image and is keen to play a more active role in the Indian Ocean region. The main reason for this, of course, is to prevent the spread of China's influence. To counter China's growing influence in the Indian Ocean, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, Japan is now working to make major changes in its diplomatic and foreign policy.

The G7 summit in Hiroshima last month became an important opportunity for Japan to project its new policy. At the same time, Japan also got a temporary membership in the United Nations Security Council. In this regard, Japan recently released three important strategy papers. These strategic documents carry the most visible drivers of Japan's regional security vision, strategy, and policy changes. In other words, they have clearly informed the world that Japan wants to play a more active and influential role in the surrounding region by increasing its own capabilities, and not just in terms of defense. 

Sweeping changes in outlook

This sweeping change in Japan's defense and security approach is being done in line with the country's constitution. In other words, Japan still maintains respect for the constitutions, treaties and agreements that it introduced in order to withdraw from its aggressive attitude after the World War. Japan is now keen to expand its diplomacy in the areas of defense and security in line with its regional economic growth-oriented policies. Japan is no longer a silent bystander but will be seen in a more active role in the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific region.

Japan expressed its ambition very clearly at the G7 summit. In addition to the members of the G7 conference, Japan has also invited India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the African Union. A review of the list of invitees makes it clear that Japan is now keen to establish important and effective partnerships at the global level, particularly in the Global South. 

Japan now wants to provide its leadership role in the region for the Western world. Washington, which was so long seeking to counter China through India, has now turned to Japan as it felt that New Delhi was not living up to that role. The US has largely failed in its efforts to establish India as a real countervailing force to China and be its eyes and ears in the region. On the contrary, China's influence in the region, especially in South Asia, has only increased rather than diminished, which has Washington worried.

Taking India's place as security bulwark?

Japan has none of the weaknesses and inabilities that have prevented India from resisting China in the region. On the other hand, Japan has all the characteristics needed to provide a reliable, capable and influential regional leadership. So, Japan is now trying to take India's place for the US through a more dominant role in the region. However, Tokyo has made it clear it wants to work with Delhi, not by replacing it, as Japan knows very well that nothing in India's backyard can be done without India.

To counter China, Japan has some limitations in defence in the Indian Ocean, though in South China Sea region Japan is able to mount a defence against China with its own naval capabilities. So, Tokyo is now relying on India to formulate a security pact for the Indian Ocean.

Bangladesh the new strategic partner

Japan has been Bangladesh's biggest development partner since the latter's birth. And since 2020, Bangladesh receives the most development aid from Japan. Bangladesh's strategic geopolitical position is essential to the geopolitical interests of both Japan and India. Japan is already investing more in the Northeast region of India to increase connectivity between Bangladesh and India.

Japan's close relationship with Bangladesh, Myanmar and India can become a very effective and influential tool to counter China's influence in the region. Japan's partnership can play a more effective developmental role, especially in the northeastern region of India. For this reason, Japan also wants to establish an industrial city in Bangladesh, so as to establish reliable supply chain links with Northeast India, Bhutan and Nepal. 

Japan's strategic outlook was expressed more forcefully during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's visit to Tokyo in April.  Japan is investing in three important infrastructure projects in Bangladesh. Among these, the Matarbari deep sea port is the most important, as it can play a unique role in connecting the Indian Ocean, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Tokyo is making this investment as part of Japan's Big-B initiative under which Japan will invest in several more high-quality infrastructure development projects in Bangladesh.

About 80 per cent of Japan's total trade is through the Indian Ocean. This is why the Bay of Bengal is very important for Japan. And Japan is establishing a direct connection to this area through Bangladesh. Bangladesh needs Japan not only for trade and regional connections, but also to play the role of a proxy for Japan's new defense and security understanding with the US.

Japan was keen to establish its new identity globally, especially in the Indian Ocean region through the recently held G7 Summit, the establishment of connectivity between Northeast India and Bangladesh, and Tokyo's new defense and security vision. In the coming days, one will see a new Japan that is no more a pawn but a new knight on the international chessboard of the United States.

(The author is a graduate of South Asian Studies, University of Toronto, Canada, and currently a Research Fellow in Bangladesh Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Views are personal. She can be contacted at

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