Orthodoxy and Heresy in Japan’s Foreign Policy

Orthodoxy and Heresy in Japan’s Foreign Policy

Every country establishes and conducts foreign policy based upon values which sometimes turn into the objective itself. Perhaps such a case might be Japan’s foreign policy: Value Oriented Diplomacy (VOD), though some would refute this as a value. How should we evaluate its significance?

Reportedly, VOD was advocated first by Foreign Minister Taro Aso of the first Abe government in 2006. VOD was intended to create an “arc of freedom and prosperity,” roughly speaking, on the Eurasian continent. After the advent of the second Abe government in December 2012, Abe demonstrated his resolve by visiting Southeast Asian countries as his first overseas tour in January 2013, where he reiterated the importance of VOD.

In the general election of 2017, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under Abe won the election and achieved a two-thirds majority in parliament along with coalition colleagues. The victory is considered to legitimatise Abe government’s policies, including VOD which might constitute the basis of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific now.

Abe’s VOD aims at the realisation of so-called universal values of freedom, democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law and prosperity through economic partnership networks in the Asia–Pacific region.

Not a few experts have appraised VOD positively because they opined it would be helpful to avoid head-on collisions with China and maintain a balance of power in Asia given the reality of China’s rapid emergence. Today, the VOD represents the orthodoxy of Japan’s foreign policy.

Dissenting opinions were voiced in 2013. Hitoshi Tanaka, the former vice-minister for foreign affairs (number 3 of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) doubted its effectiveness and argued that Japan’s insistence on China’s democratisation was ultimately counterproductive. And furthermore, Takeshi Noda, an LDP lower house member and president of the Japan–China Society, pointed out that VOD was perceived as an encirclement of China from the Beijing viewpoint, and was therefore not clever as a policy. These opinions could be regarded as heresy in opposition to the orthodoxy of VOD. Nevertheless, these days, objections against VOD are rarely heard: VOD is apparently set firmly as a basic and main tenet of Japan’s foreign policy.

It is noteworthy that in the US, criticism has also risen against China’s political pronouncements. A leading US journalist, Richard McGregor, said Xi is promoting the idea that “authoritarian political systems are not only legitimate but can outperform Western democracies.” Beijing’s real goal is “encouraging the spread of authoritarianism.”[]

As one might expect, China was offended by the VOD. For example, The People’s Daily Online (its Japanese version) of June 20, 2013 put up its critical commentary of “Increasingly Monomaniac Japan’s VOD,” suggesting the main objective of VOD as China’s isolation and encirclement, and remarked that Japan’s present need was to discard its myopic historical historic view and the obtrusion of Japan’s ideas upon other countries.

To my surprise, China does not accept VOD in spite of the fact that China has been claiming persistently that the country has been a democratic country, observing the rule of law and so on. In which case they should themselves adhere to such universal values. One might say China’s irritation reveals their diffidence.

Then what should be a judicious means of coping with the situations? I would like to propose the Indian way. None would object to characterisation of India as a democratic country. My understanding is that democracy requires several criteria to be accepted as such, among which might be a change of government reflecting election results. India might want to label China’s political system as undemocratic. However, India is disinclined to do so.

Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations pertinently points out “India has a remarkable story to tell about its experience with democracy––both its problems as well as its successes––but it chooses not to proselytize… and (is) unlikely to become a missionary in the American model.”[] It might be possible to interpret such diplomatic attitudes as one aspect of India’s foreign behaviour. Shortly after India’s general election in 2014, an Australian expert on South Asian affairs predicted that India’s foreign policy would be to try to play all ends against the middle with the US, Japan and China[]. Moreover, India might need some more time to be a global major power[].

India is a country of complexity. During my Delhi University days, a professor of comparative political institutions repeatedly emphasised the institutionalization of India’s complexity, resulting in the adoption of federalism to accommodate such complexity. Additionally, India is a country with its own orthodoxy and heresy.

VOD might have somehow restrained China’s naked external aggrandisement. It would be alright to retain VOD as Japan’s basic foreign policy agenda, although without loudly advocating it. In other words, Japan should not take its stance as orthodox, and others are heretical. Through berating others on VOD, Japan is able to acquire little. Instead, Japan would be better positioned by pursuing a policy of engagement and hedging[].

Globally, we are witnessing today increased democratic retreats and the simultaneous rising tempo of populism, nationalism and radicalism. Under such situations, Japan would be required to carry out foreign policy much more pragmatically.



[] Richard McGregor, “Xi Jinping’s Ideological Ambitions,” The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2018

[] Alyssa Ayres, Our Time has come: How India is making its place in the World, Oxford University Press, 2018, pp.152-153

[]Sandy Gordon, “Will China ‘wedge” India and the US,” South Asia Masala, June 5, 2014. http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/blogs/southasiamasala/2014/06/05/will-china-wedge-india-and-the-us/comment-page-1/

[]Takenori Horimoto, ”Explaining India’s Foreign Policy: From Dream to Realization of Major Power,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific (OUP), Volume 17, Issue 3, September 1, 2017. https://academic.oup.com/irap/article/doi/10.1093/irap/lcx011/4104432/Explaining-Indias-Foreign-Policy-From-Dream-to?guestAccessKey=bb647b88-fbcb-46f6-94c0-455475178a43

[] Takenori Horimoto, “Debate: The Indo-Pacific Region Needs a Strategy to Both Hedge, and Engage, China,” The Wire, July 21, 2018. https://thewire.in/security/foip-debate-two-sided-strategy-of-engagement-with-china-is-indispensable


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