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Opinion

Promoting Japan's answer to China's Belt and Road

To compete with Beijing, Tokyo must go out and market the free and open Indo-Pacific brand

If the Free and Open Indo-Pacific is to compete, it is essential that it continues beyond the Abe era.   © Reuters

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made his concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific the centerpiece of Japan's foreign policy. Yet the idea has been badly promoted and remains poorly understood across Asia.

If the Abe government is to succeed in presenting an attractive alternative to China's Belt and Road Initiative, the huge infrastructure program which holds its second international forum in Beijing this week (starting April 25), Japan must be bolder in defining FOIP as a brand.

Applying marketing terminology to politics is to invite eye-rolling, but a brand is precisely what FOIP is -- or should be.

Firstly, a brand is not the same thing as a product. It is a central organizing principle that sets out the beliefs and expectations that consumers are encouraged to hold in general about a provider's goods and services.

Japan has long engaged in activities in the Indo-Pacific region to promote the rule of law, develop infrastructure, and contribute to maritime security. It has for decades focused on countries lying near the vital sealanes connecting Japan to its oil suppliers in the Middle East.

What is new is that, since August 2016, Prime Minister Abe has brought together diverse projects in these three key areas under the unifying concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Secondly, branding is about differentiation from competitors. This applies to FOIP since it is evidently a reaction to China's BRI. This is apparent in Japan's decision to emphasize the values of "free and open," which are intended to invite comparison with a Chinese approach that is widely seen in Tokyo, New Delhi and western capitals as closed and coercive.

For Japan, establishing a favorable reputation is especially important since FOIP cannot compete with the BRI when it comes to financing and scale. FOIP will therefore be smaller but seeks to cultivate a more positive image. Think Lyft versus Uber.

And yet, while FOIP's value is as a brand, the Japanese government has been remarkably hesitant about promoting it. Officials speak often about the concept but, unlike with China's BRI, there is no dedicated FOIP website. Moreover, the main contribution of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is two jumbled PowerPoint presentations that were evidently developed for internal use.

Part of the problem is that Japanese bureaucrats are bad at public relations and apparently have little sense for design. Yet Japan's caution about promoting FOIP is also deliberate.

There is clearly a feeling that a more forceful and unambiguous advocacy of FOIP could discourage countries in South East Asia from participating if they feel they are being made to choose between Japan and China's regional visions. Japan's current approach is therefore to remain deliberately vague about FOIP and to demonstrate its inclusiveness by encouraging countries to develop their own understanding of the concept.

The result is a proliferation of visions, with Australia, India, the United States, and Indonesia all promoting their own versions of the Indo-Pacific label. This creates confusion since their conceptions differ in terms of geographical reach and the priorities they espouse. FOIP is consequently devalued since brands only command awareness and esteem if there is clarity about what they stand for.

Worse, if Japan does not take stronger ownership of the FOIP brand, it may be defined by others. This is a particular concern when it comes to the United States, which set out its own vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific in 2017.

President Donald Trump's adoption of the FOIP label was welcomed by Japan, which saw it as an endorsement. Yet it also carries risks. In particular, Washington takes a more confrontational approach to China and may be inclined to tightly connect FOIP with military security, including the Quad, an informal strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. This goes against Japan's insistence that the FOIP is not intended as a mechanism for containing China. It may also cause ASEAN members to fear that involvement in FOIP entails supporting an anti-China bloc.

The solution is for Japan to be bolder and to retake leadership in defining what the FOIP brand actually stands for. This can include vocal advocacy of the principles that the Japanese government has already claimed to be central to FOIP. These are openness, transparency, economic sustainability, and financial ownership for developing countries. At the same time, Japan can be more forceful in explaining that there is no direct connection between the FOIP and the Quad, and that Japan's approach is about competition, not confrontation, with China.

The challenge will be to achieve clarity about the concept without alienating countries whose involvement is essential to FOIP's success as a multilateral endeavor. Japan should therefore welcome input from partners and coordinate activities in the promotion of FOIP. What it must not encourage, however, is the profusion of similar yet diverging brands.

In practical terms, Japan urgently needs better promotional material and should be more active in applying the brand to new and existing projects. This can be done by creating a FOIP infrastructure fund, a FOIP forum, and FOIP scholarships. The label should also be prominently attached to all relevant, Japanese-funded projects within the region.

This must also be a sustained effort since it takes many years for a brand to become truly successful. It is likely that the BRI will remain a feature of Chinese foreign policy for many years. As such, if FOIP is to compete, it is essential that it continues beyond the Abe era, which is anticipated to end by September 2021 at the latest.

If managed correctly, FOIP has the potential to offer an attractive liberal alternative to China's BRI. The concept is also an opportunity for Japan to demonstrate its continued importance to regional development and its growing willingness to take a leadership role.

However, these things will not be achieved through passivity. If Japan wants FOIP to have a defining impact on the region and not be forgotten like so many previous initiatives, it must be more decisive in promoting the brand.

James D.J. Brown is an associate professor in political science at Temple University in Tokyo and a specialist on Russo-Japanese relations.

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