JAKARTA (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - In recent decades, Asia's regional framework has been shaped and reshaped according to the region's perceived underlying risks.
In the 1990s, when the Japanese economy outstripped the combined gross domestic product of all other countries in Asia, the "Asia-Pacific" emerged as a regional framework for East Asian countries and the United States as well as Mexico, Chile and Peru.
This was intended to prevent Asia from becoming Japan's backyard.
After East Asia suffered an economic crisis in 1997-98, "East Asia" emerged as a regional framework, with countries in the region viewing the United States as a risk. This development was a response to Washington's hard-nosed, interventionist approach in pressuring Thailand, South Korea and other crisis-stricken economies to comply with overly demanding structural reform policies.
Now, what about the "Indo-Pacific" concept? The Australian government adopted the "Indo-Pacific" term in 2012 as a pivotal idea in its diplomacy.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used the same term for the first time in August 2016 during the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI), held in Nairobi, when he unveiled a "free and open Indo-Pacific strategy."
Abe said, in effect, that vital sea-lanes in the Pacific and Indian oceans connect Asia and Africa and that the world's stability and prosperity hinge on the dynamism that is brought forth through "the union of [THE]two free and open oceans and two continents."
He urged that the Pacific and Indian oceans be turned "into peaceful seas" and "a place that values freedom, the rule of law and the market economy, free from force or coercion."
U.S. President Donald Trump used the "Indo-Pacific" term for the first time in Da Nang, Vietnam, in November last year when he participated in the summit meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
He supported the vision of "a free and open Indo-Pacific - a place where sovereign and independent nations, with diverse cultures and many different dreams, can all prosper side-by-side, and thrive in freedom and in peace."
Why is the "Indo-Pacific" now the focus of attention as a regional framework? What is the risk that gives urgency to the "Indo-Pacific" vision?
Considering Asia's economic growth and Africa's growth potential, the vast region that stretches from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean has a good possibility of becoming the center of prosperity in the 21st-century world.
However, China, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, aims to become hegemonic in Asia through its military build-up and regional economic cooperation in the name of the "Belt and Road Initiative" that envisages the creation of a vast geo-economic zone. This is the risk against which the "Indo-Pacific" concept is meant to hedge.
Nonetheless, Japan and the United States differ significantly in their approaches to the "Indo-Pacific" vision.
To realise a "free and open Indo-Pacific," Abe has called for improving infrastructure, promoting trade and investment and fostering human resources development, while seeking to deepen the Japan-U.S. alliance and strengthen security partnerships with Australia and India, among other countries.
He thus attaches importance to the economic growth of the region while ensuring the regional power balance in response to China's military build-up.
In this context, it is of great significance that Japan and 10 other countries signed a new Trans-Pacific Partnership, also known as TPP-11, in March.
Trump, meanwhile, emphasises negotiating bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) instead of multilateral trade pacts like the TPP.
In its "National Security Strategy (NSS)" issued in December last year, the Trump administration defined the "Indo-Pacific" as an arena for geopolitical competition between the United States and China.
In the Indo-Pacific region, the United States and China are in competition to shape the regional order in their own favour.
As the U.S. National Security Strategy puts it, "China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda."
Its "infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.
China has mounted a rapid military modernisation … Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific." The report states that the United States will exercise leadership "in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence."
There exists a clear and important difference between Japan and the United States as to the "Indo-Pacific" regional vision.
Japan opposes China's moves to impose its political will on other countries in the region by force and coercion, while, nevertheless, cooperating with China wherever possible. This approach is based on Japan's principle of ensuring "freedom, the rule of law and market economy."
The United States has been rebalancing its military assets toward Asia since the early 2010s.
Responding to this pivot, Japan has deepened its alliance with the United States and strengthened strategic partnerships with Australia and India.
As for the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Japan opposes Beijing's claim over the entire South China Sea and activities to build and militarize artificial outposts there.
On the economic front, however, Japan has adopted a more accommodating approach, as in the case of China's Belt and Road Initiative.
In June 2017, Abe offered a positive evaluation of the Chinese scheme for its "potential to link diverse areas," while demanding that the principles of transparency and fairness prevail in choosing and funding infrastructure projects and that recipient countries' fiscal soundness be maintained.
On the other hand, the Trump administration is more inclined to adopt a confrontational stance on China.
The NSS document labeled both China and Russia as "revisionist powers" challenging "American power, influence, and interests" and intent on "shap[ING] a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests."
To be specific, the United States accused China of seeking to "displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favour."
On the economic front, the United States is now pursuing bilateral free trade agreements in its own favour by employing its overwhelming economic might.
Washington now does not hesitate to resort to coercion as witnessed in recent FTA negotiations with South Korea.
In other words, from the perspective of countries in the Indo-Pacific region, the United States under Trump seems to be behaving like the "revisionist power" that it accuses China of being.
If this kind of situation continues to prevail, it will remain difficult to realise a "free and open Indo-Pacific."
The "Indo-Pacific" unites an immense region, stretching from the western shores of the Americas to the eastern coast of Africa.
The region has two main geographic spines - the east-west line running from Japan to India via the Philippines and Indonesia, and the north-south line stretching from Malaysia and Singapore to Australia.
As such, the backing of these countries is crucial for the realisation of a "free and open Indo-Pacific."
These countries want to ensure their sovereignty and security and improve their standard of living by achieving economic growth.
The peace and stability of the region are supported by the U.S.-led regional security system. Therefore, U.S. efforts to reinforce the security system will be greatly appreciated.
But the "Indo-Pacific" strategy of the United States is preoccupied too much with Trump's "America First" trade policy.
What each country should now do is not to prioritise its own interests but to cooperate with one another to enable every country in the region to enjoy peace, stability and prosperity.
In this regard, Japan should take the initiative, together with Australia, India and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), to promote and deepen such regional cooperation.
The writer is chancellor of the Prefectural University of Kumamoto. The Yomiuri Shimbun is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media.