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HomeGeopolitical CompassEast AsiaJapan and the Liberal International Order: Rules-Based, Multilateral, Inclusive and Localized

Japan and the Liberal International Order: Rules-Based, Multilateral, Inclusive and Localized

Author: Ryoko Nakano

Affiliation: Faculty of International Studies, Institute of Human and Social Sciences

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: April 2023/ UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 18



Keywords: Japan, Liberal International Order, Multilateralism



This article discusses the liberal international order (LIO) in the context of great power rivalry, particularly between the United States and China. The article focuses on Japan as a major power engaged in the LIO. Japan, like other major powers, supports core LIO principles while relying on its alliance with the US for security. The article addresses questions about Japan’s goals in the international order and how its engagement affects the world. By focusing on Japan, the author highlights that the sustainability of the LIO does not depend solely on the great powers, but also the actions of various actors, including international institutions, non-state actors, and regional powers. While powers with regional influence cannot reshape the international order, they can influence norms within their regions, impacting the global system.

Japan’s approach to international order is rules-based, multilateral, inclusive, and localized. While it endorses LIO elements, it also emphasizes the importance of maintaining relationships with non-democratic states. Japan’s commitment to sovereignty and non-intervention aligns with other Asian countries, but its emphasis on multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions sets it apart as a major regional power.


The article is divided into four sections covering key LIO elements, namely the historical context for Japan’s approach of comprehensive security, China’s influence on Japanese security thinking, Japan’s response to risks, and its adaptation of LIO norms in Southeast Asia. The conclusion summarizes the findings and their implications for the future of the LIO.


The Liberal International Order and Norm Localization:

This section of the article discusses John Ikenberry’s ideas regarding the Liberal International Order (LIO). Ikenberry’s perspective centers the LIO as a system where states cooperate for mutual gains within an open, loosely rule-based and progressively-oriented international order. This order is characterized by principles such as international openness, multilateralism, democratic solidarity, cooperative security, and progressive social purposes.

According to Ikenberry, the LIO is the most enduring international order, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, and its strength lies in its adaptability and ability to reform. It has evolved from a region-specific system emphasizing free trade and multilateralism to a global institution that includes the institutionalization of liberal interventionism.

However, Ikenberry notes that the LIO faces unprecedented challenges, including the rise of authoritarian states and the growth of nationalist populism within Western democratic countries. To ensure its survival, the LIO needs updates, particularly in terms of how liberal democracies, including the US, can adapt to the preferences of a broader range of democracies and how rights and responsibilities in existing institutions can be redistributed to reflect a more multipolar world.

Ikenberry suggests two visions for the future of the LIO: a “small and thick” liberal order based on an exclusive grouping of liberal democratic countries pursuing expansive social purposes and a “large and thin” order where all states cooperate due to the essential nature of a rules-based order for mutual gains and protection.

The challenge is to build congruence between these two visions, recognizing that the LIO serves as a powerful myth for the West but is also associated with imperialism and racial discrimination in the eyes of many non-Western countries. To achieve this, norm localization, or adapting international norms to local contexts, is crucial. Major regional powers, like Japan, can play a role in adapting and tweaking LIO norms, especially in their regions, to bridge the gap between these visions and make the LIO more inclusive. Japan’s comprehensive security concept is identified as a vehicle for this localization process.


Japanese International Perspectives and Comprehensive Security:

This section of the article discusses Japan’s relationship with the Liberal International Order (LIO) and its evolution over the past seven decades.

For a long time, Japan has been a beneficiary of the LIO, and scholars like Yuichi Hosoya argue that Japan must defend it against external and internal threats. However, it was not until later that there was a public consensus on the importance of the LIO for Japan’s development and security. Operating within the LIO for Japan is closely tied to hosting US military bases and compromising on territorial rights, which are divisive issue in Japanese public opinion.

Japan’s political landscape has been influenced by these factors. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) came to power in 1955 and has largely maintained political dominance. The LDP initially focused on mercantilist state policies, which drove economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, and adopted a non-military, economy-oriented foreign policy posture known as the Yoshida Doctrine. The Yoshida Doctrine was characterized by its acceptance of Japan’s junior partner status to the US and a low-key foreign policy. Later, revisionist conservatives sought to make Japan a great power while maintaining strong Japan-US security cooperation. However, the popularity of pragmatist conservatives prevailed.

Masataka Kosaka emerged as an influential realist scholar who advocated for Japan’s economic growth and an honorable international position. He argued that Japan could prosper as a “mercantilist state” given its resource scarcity and geographical location. Kosaka contributed to the concept of “comprehensive security,” emphasizing the importance of non-military aspects of security, including economic and social factors. Comprehensive security thinking gained prominence in the 1970s when Japan faced vulnerabilities due to various events. This thinking highlighted the need for a rules-based, multilateral, and inclusive international order. Comprehensive security remained influential in Japanese foreign policy, particularly during the era of globalization.

Japan’s foreign policy evolved to include multilateralism, participation in UN peacekeeping operations and cooperation on economic and non-traditional security issues. Japan also adopted the concept of “human security,” prioritizing the protection and empowerment of individuals. This approach allowed Japan to focus on non-military contributions to international peace and development.

In summary, Japan has expanded its security concept over the years to address vulnerabilities and adapt to changing global dynamics. It has embraced comprehensive security and human security, emphasizing the importance of a rules-based and multilateral international order while promoting peace through non-military means. Japan’s approach sets it apart from other G7 countries and underscores its commitment to democracy and human rights while avoiding a strong emphasis on intervention.


Rising China as Multiple Risks: The Re-Emergence of Comprehensive Security Thinking:

This section of the article discusses how Japan perceives China’s ascent to great power status and the various threats and challenges it poses.

Japan has become increasingly concerned about China’s rapid expansion of its military capabilities, especially in naval and missile technology. This has created tensions, particularly in the context of the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in China).

Economically, China has surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy, giving it significant leverage in the Asia-Pacific region. This shift has made Japan vulnerable to escalating disputes with China over territory and interpretations of historical events.

China’s rise has also affected Japan’s ontological security, particularly for conservative groups. Some Japanese conservatives view Japan as a leading law-abiding country and contributor to international peace and development. However, China’s international presence and contributions have surpassed Japan’s, challenging this unique identity. China’s criticism of Japan’s wartime history has further strained relations.

The fear of losing its privileged position as an international actor with a positive relationship with international organizations threatens the ontological security of Japanese revisionist conservatives. Japan was alarmed when China used UNESCO to promote its version of history, spreading what Japan viewed as an exaggerated narrative of historical events.

Additionally, Japan is concerned about the erosion of international norms due to China’s growing influence in international organizations like the World Health Organization and certain UN specialized agencies. Some experts believe that China’s reluctance to clarify its alternative rules indicates an inclination towards “imperialism” rather than a rules-based order.

In terms of development aid, China has increased aid recipients without explicitly stating its aid principles and rules, potentially undermining the international development regime. Japanese scholars highlight China’s one-party domination, state capitalism, and hierarchical political culture as contributing factors to its imperialist thinking.

While Japanese conservatives, including revisionists, do not want to exclude China from the current international order, they are increasingly cautious about China’s ambitions. They emphasize the importance of integrating China into the international economic system but are concerned about China’s disregard for sovereign equality, reciprocity, and the separation of politics and economics.

Despite these concerns, Japan recognizes that its own well-being and security are closely linked to China. China’s policies and actions greatly affect Japan’s economic, environmental, social, and political situation. This means Japan has no choice but to engage with China while managing the various risks associated with its ascent to great power status.

Overall, Japan’s approach to security has evolved to encompass a wide range of issues beyond military concerns, including economic, social, political, and environmental factors, in response to China’s changing role in the region.


Expanding Japan’s Geo-strategic Scope:

To address the risks posed by China’s rising influence, Japan has adopted a strategic approach called the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). This concept envisions a geopolitical space along the rim of the Eurasian continent where countries can deepen their commitment to freedom, democracy, market economies, the rule of law, and human rights.

The FOIP has evolved from a strategy to a broader vision that does not exclude any particular nation, a shift that was made to accommodate concerns about provoking China. Japan emphasizes economic development and openness in the maritime domain within the FOIP framework. Japan’s official definition of the FOIP has a near-global scope, encompassing vast maritime areas and connecting two continents (Asia and Africa) and two oceans (the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean). It includes regions such as Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Japan aims to make the FOIP a focal point for coalition-building and cooperation among regional and non-regional actors.

Japan’s approach to the FOIP involves tactical hedging, allowing the state to adjust its policies in response to others’ reactions. It has welcomed the expansion of partnerships related to the FOIP, including with the US, ASEAN, Australia, India, the EU, and European countries.

Japan seeks to collaborate with Europe to address geopolitical dynamics in Asia and support the rules-based international order (LIO). This alignment was reinforced when Japan sided with the EU and NATO over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Japan’s support for the West’s stance aims to increase pressure on NATO and the EU to engage in the FOIP, enhancing deterrence against potential challenges, including China’s use of force in East Asia.

In the economic realm, Japan has promoted trade agreements, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), to establish transparent and stringent rules and standards. This move is aimed at curbing China’s influence and strengthening the rules-based international order.

Overall, Japan’s FOIP strategy has evolved into a comprehensive vision for maintaining a free and open international order based on the rule of law, addressing various risks and challenges associated with China’s rise as a global power.


The Return of Comprehensive Security Thinking and Norm Localization in Asia:

Addressing the challenge of transforming countries with a thin vision of the liberal international order (LIO) into accepting a thicker liberal vision is a complex task. For skeptics of the LIO, concepts like human rights, democracy, and humanitarian intervention can be seen as imperialism and hegemonic domination. To bridge this gap, localization of LIO norms becomes crucial. Aligning LIO norms more closely with local norms helps to strengthen its resilience.

Regional powers like Japan can play a role in approaching LIO skeptics by presenting an alternative that doesn’t force them to choose between total rejection or total acceptance of LIO norms. Japan has engaged with LIO skeptics through economic assistance while emphasizing sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention. Within the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) framework, Japan defines key issue areas such as infrastructure development, economic partnership, capacity-building, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, non-proliferation, and anti-piracy and counterterrorism measures.

Japan’s FOIP has been presented as harmonious with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), demonstrating the degree to which it is a less intrusive version of the LIO. This approach appeals to those who prefer an order not dominated by power politics. By promoting economic development and an approach of non-interference, Japan aims to create a normative community in Southeast Asia that can help counterbalance China’s influence.

Southeast Asia is a central focus of Japan’s strategic cooperation and coalition-building efforts within the FOIP framework. This region is seen as crucial for building a normative community to preserve the core principles of the LIO, including the rule of law, free trade and freedom of navigation. While there are differing perspectives on Japan’s role in Southeast Asia, there is a consensus on the importance of Japan’s engagement with the region, especially in terms of interconnectivity and development.

To achieve broader acceptance of a thick liberal vision in Asia, Japan must effectively localize LIO norms. The FOIP framework, emphasizing interconnectivity and development, allows Japan to adapt and tweak these norms, enabling non-democratic developing countries to form a loose coalition to prevent China’s dominance.

Japan’s approach contrasts with both China, which seeks influence through hard power, and the US, whose strategic framing can be more provocative. Japan provides a strategic contrast by acknowledging China’s power while seeking to moderate how it wields that power. Japan’s engagement with Southeast Asia demonstrates that a major power can promote regional stability, security, and prosperity while contributing to the future of the LIO.



The article’s perspective on norm localization provides a valuable insight into international order-building and the sustainability of the liberal international order (LIO). It highlights that regional powers, like Japan, can contribute to the resilience of the LIO by adapting its principles and practices to align with local norms and values.

This approach challenges the notion that great powers alone determine the international order and emphasizes the importance of engaging with skeptics within their own normative frameworks. Rather than imposing a binary choice on non-Western nations, such as outright support or rejection of democracy and human rights, a more inclusive and nuanced approach is needed to bridge differences and promote acceptance of the LIO.

In a world characterized by diverse cultural and political landscapes, the ability to adapt and localize LIO norms becomes crucial for its continued relevance and effectiveness. Japan’s example illustrates how a major power can contribute to international order-building while respecting regional actors’ sovereignty and preferences.

This perspective encourages proponents of the LIO to engage in meaningful dialogue, gain a deeper understanding of local normative foundations and seek common ground to ensure the LIO’s enduring relevance in an ever-evolving global landscape. It underscores the dynamic nature of the international order and the importance of adaptability in preserving and advancing its principles.


By: Dr. Nabil Kahlouche, Strategic Researcher 



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