The success of Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision, once seen as a tool to contain China, will hinge on its inclusiveness, political observers said at a panel discussion yesterday.
And the role Japan can play in supporting rules-based order and promoting development assistance in the region will only continue to grow, they said, as both the United States and China attempt to rewrite global norms.
"As a middle power, Japan is poor in acting unilaterally and therefore Japan chooses to cooperate with other countries," said Dr Masayuki Tadokoro, an international relations professor at Keio University. "That is where Japan can play a role, as its credentials and track record are highly appreciated internationally."
Japan spearheaded the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and will take up climate change issues when it hosts the Group of 20 summit this year, even as its ally the US has jettisoned multilateral free trade deals and the Paris climate change accord.
But Japan is working with the US to safeguard free and open passage of the South China Sea, given increasing Chinese expansionism.
Dr Tadokoro was speaking at a forum organised by Japan's Foreign Press Centre on the FOIP's role in ensuring peace and prosperity in the region.
Among the panellists were veteran journalists from The Straits Times (ST), the Nikkei business daily, the Financial Times (FT), The New York Times (NYT), and The Hindustan Times.
ST associate editor Ravi Velloor, noting that it will be against South-east Asia's interests to choose sides, said that the FOIP will need to address Chinese insecurities and arrest its ambitions when they grow beyond a point.
Dr Akihiro Tanaka, president of Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (Grips), said China's Belt and Road Initiative - a development strategy to revive ancient land and sea trade routes links - has been criticised for leaving countries like Sri Lanka and Kenya laden with massive debt in what amounted to "neo-colonialism".
America's FOIP strategy, Dr Tanaka added, was meant to check the expansion of Chinese authoritarian values through the Indo-Pacific region, the centre of gravity of the world economy.
"But the regional concept of the Indo-Pacific is more secular and reflective of a global economic trajectory, and is not to be interpreted as a place of geopolitical rivalry."
In this environment, India and Japan have become close partners, said Hindustan Times foreign editor Pramit Pal Chaudhuri. He noted the slew of Indo-Japanese projects across the Indian Ocean in which "Japan does most of the work and India does most of the diplomacy".
Over the last two years, US sentiment on China has turned for the worse on both sides of the political divide, be it on human rights or trade issues, said NYT's Beijing correspondent, Mr Steven Lee Myers, adding that Washington has been asking countries to "pick and choose sides" on Huawei.
While Japan and India may restrict Chinese technology in its 5G networks, FT's chief foreign affairs commentator, Mr Gideon Rachman, noted that Europe has taken a more moderate stance as a regulatory superpower, with Brussels also taking aim at Facebook and Google for its anti-piracy practices.
Nikkei commentator Hiroyuki Akita said, summing up the debate, that through the FOIP, Japan can share values such as democracy.
"But even with non-democratic countries, Japan can share norms like the 'rule of law'. And it can also share interests - like with China - which it can work with, depending on the project, where their conditions and standards are aligned."