Suga walks tightrope between US and China

Suga walks tightrope between US and China

Prime minister tones down ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ language to cast wider net

TOKYO — In a speech to parliament this week, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga invoked a foreign policy concept from predecessor Shinzo Abe, but with one subtle difference that hints at the new leader’s more balanced approach to ties with the U.S. and China.

Suga said Monday that he would “aim to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific,” an idea pushed by both the U.S. and Japan in recent years.

But he did not refer to this as a “vision” — language that had led China to interpret the framework as a containment strategy, as well as put off Southeast Asian countries leery of provoking Beijing. By departing from his predecessor’s framing, Suga hopes to encourage more countries in the region to take part.

The concept, originally known as the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy,” was first articulated in 2016 by Abe as prime minister, as a call for regionwide cooperation on security and economic growth.

It was envisioned as a counterweight to China’s Belt and Road regional infrastructure initiative. The goal was to promote cooperation among countries that share values including the rule of law and the market economy, to curb what critics see as Beijing’s efforts to strong-arm developing countries into taking on debt for new infrastructure.