Karl who? – Haushofer, Japan and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific

By David M. Malitz

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe (1954-2022, in office 2006-2007, 2012-2020) was the longest-serving prime minister since the opening of a parliament in the East Asian country in 1890, serving more than two terms. His long premiership allowed him to become one of the most significant leaders of post-war Japan, who implemented far-reaching reforms to Japan’s foreign and security policy.[1]

One of his lasting legacies is the conceptualization of the “Indo-Pacific” region by merging the regions around the Pacific and the Indian Ocean and introducing them into the international geopolitical discourse. This region was first publicly conceptualized at a high-ranking government-level in Shinzō Abe’s speech Confluence of the Two Seas given during his first term in office at the Indian parliament in August 2007.[2] With the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, a comprehensive Japanese vision for the region was then presented in 2016. It was no coincidence that the regional conceptualization was unveiled in India. The background to its conceptualization in Japan and its subsequent adoption around the world was the rise of the People’s Republic of China to superpower status and the pursuit of an increasingly revisionist foreign policy since the Global Financial Crisis, which became particularly pronounced under Xi Jinping. Having recorded strong economic growth since the liberalization of its economy from the early 1990s onward, nuclear-armed India as the world largest democracy was quickly identified as a counterweight to China. As Abe wrote in the second edition of his book-length manifesto of 2013, Toward a New Country: Toward a Beautiful Country, as well as in a published series of interviews given after stepping down from office in September 2020, Japan and India shared the values of liberalism and democracy. Additionally, Japanese-Indian relations were not overshadowed by historical grievances. The latter point was exemplified in both publications through a family anecdote. When his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi (1896–1987, in office 1957–1960) visited India as Japanese prime minister in 1957, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964, in office 1947–1964) invited him to join him on the balcony of his residence, from where he was to address a crowd. There, Nehru introduced Kishi to the crowd as the prime minister of the country, whose victory over Czarist Russia had given Indian the courage to resist Britain and gain independence.[3] This sentiment is also reflected in the autobiography of India’s first prime minister.[4]

Karl Haushofer, Photo: Friedrich V. Hauser (d. 1921), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Following its first public conceptualization in 2007, the Indo-Pacific has been adopted as the geopolitical framework for strategic policies by Australia (2013),[5] the United States (2017),[6] India (2018),[7] France (2019),[8] the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, 2019),[9] Germany (2020),[10] the European Union (2021),[11] the United Kingdom (2021),[12] the Republic of Korea (2022),[13] and Canada (2022).[14] This global adoption of the Indo-Pacific, with differing geographic definitions, has led to the emergence of a sizable literature on the region and the different strategies, visions, and outlooks formulated for it. In this literature, it is customary to refer to the German scholar Karl Haushofer (1869–1946) as first geopolitical thinker to use the term “Indo-Pacific” in the 1920s and therefore to claim or imply an influence of Haushofer’s thought on 21st century policy. A recent monograph is titled: The Rise and Return of the Indo-Pacific.[15] Other publications see in the current use of the term a “rebirth”,[16] “re-entering”,[17]reincarnation”,[18] a “rediscovery”,[19] or an “impressive comeback[20]. Haushofer’s ideas, it is claimed, have “gained currency” again in present times, starting with Shinzō Abe and Japan.[21] As it is stated in a Chinese online magazine “the spirit of Haushofer is still hovering over Japan”.[22] However, it is possibly of greatest significance that this claim of Haushofer’s influence on contemporary Japanese, but not only Japanese, foreign policy is uncritically reproduced as fact on the Wikipedia sites on the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and the “Indo-Pacific”.[23]

This claim, as I will illustrate, is factually incorrect. What makes it particularly problematic, though, is that Karl Haushofer was of course not just any geographer or political scientist. Even if recent scholarship denies Haushofer’s direct influence on National Socialist foreign policy, he nonetheless gave Adolf Hitler and Rudolf Hess geopolitical coaching during their imprisonment after the failed putsch of 1923. And although there appear to have been significant ideological differences between the geopolitician and the Nazi-party, the former was an anti-Semite, anti-democrat and revanchist all too willing to serve the latter. It is well established that Haushofer’s thinking and his rise to prominence can be traced back to his two-year stay in Japan as a military observer before World War I. His contacts with Japanese politicians and officers therefore not only served to establish himself as an expert on Japan in Germany. Some of his ideas were also embraced in Japan in order to justify the expansion as a step towards a Greater East-Asian Coprosperity Sphere. At the time, Haushofer dreamed of a continental block that would unite authoritarian/totalitarian Germany, Soviet-Russia, and Japan against the maritime Anglo-Saxon powers. An independent India and China could possibly expand this alliance but were of secondary importance.[24] Claiming an influence of Haushofer’s geopolitical ideas on Japanese foreign and security policy today, therefore also suggests that there are continuities between the latter and the imperialism of prewar Japan.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and his advisor and speechwriter Tomohiko Taniguchi in September 2020. Photo and Copyright: Tomohiko Taniguchi.

In reality, the Japanese “vision”’ for the region, known as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, has nothing in common with Haushofer’s geopolitical ideas. Japanese-Indian cooperation, a mere possibility for Haushofer, was crucial for Abe and has remained so under his successors precisely because of India’s parliamentarian democracy and free-market economy. Furthermore, the Japanese-US alliance remains the cornerstone of Japanese foreign and security policy. In a speech given at the Hudson Institute in Washington in September 2013, Abe explicitly stated his wish that “Japan and the U.S. together should lead the Indo-Pacific Century to make it one that cherishes freedom, democracy, human rights, and rules-based order”.[25] Already in an article published in the previous year, Abe had proposed linking up security cooperation with both the United States and India with yet another Anglo-Saxon country, Australia, describing the resulting quadrilinear security relationship between four “sea-faring democracies” as Asia’s Security Diamond.[26] The article also extended an invitation to Great Britain and France. This security cooperation is since known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD. While initially short-lived due to Australia’s withdrawal, it was revived in 2017. In 2021 a joint statement was published affirming commitment to the QUAD and explicitly referring to the Indo-Pacific as its geopolitcal frame.[27]

As arbitrary as it would be to link Haushofer to contemporary Japanese politics on the basis of the common use of the term “Indo-Pacific” alone, this link does not stand up to scrutiny either. The term “Indo-Pacific” did not appear in Abe’s speech of 2007 nor in the 2012 article, nor in Abe’s 2016 address at the Opening Session of the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development.[28] This last speech introduced the Japanese Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision. According to Abe, Kenya was a deliberate choice, as Africa was seen as less confrontational than, for example, Southeast Asia. For the same region, “vision” rather than “strategy” has been adopted for the policy framework.[29] Subsequent summaries of this vision, like the one in the 2017 Japanese Diplomatic Blue Book, then actually use the term ‘Indo-Pacific’.[30] It must therefore be emphasized that the strategy, or rather vision, for the Indo-Pacific region came before the name.

Captain (Dr.) Gurpreet S Khurana. Photo and Copyright: Akul Tripathi.

In fact, according to a conversation the author had with Tomohiko Taniguchi, Shinzō Abe’s long-term advisor and speechwriter, neither of them knew Haushofer’s name and ideas when he wrote the speeches now widely regarded as introducing the Indo-Pacific region into global discourse.[31] Haushofer may have been known among Japanese scholars, but certainly not in Shinzō Abe’s inner circle. Haushofer also did not appear in the commentaries of Japan’s major newspapers at the time.[32]

One must further emphasize that Haushofer did not coin the term “Indo-Pacific”. Rather he used a term already well-established in the natural sciences in the late 19th century for his geopolitical writings.[33] In the context of Japanese foreign policy in the 21st century, an Indo-Pacific region was first mentioned in the 2007 article Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India–Japan Cooperation written by the Indian naval officer and academic Gurpreet S. Khurana.[34] It does, however, not mention Haushofer. Gurpreet S Khurana informed the author that he was also not aware of the German scholar and his writings.[35] Rather, he came up with the term on his own, unaware that it was used by Haushofer or in oceanography, seeking for an alternative for the “Asia-Pacific region” which was unsuitable in the context of Indian-Japanese maritime security cooperation.

On a government level, the Indo-Pacific would not appear until 2010, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained America’s Engagement in the Asia-Pacific in a speech given in Honolulu, Hawaii.[36] Nevertheless, her choice of the words “Indo-Pacific basin” implies an influence from oceanography rather than early 20th century German political ideas. The Australian Defence White Paper 2013 was then the first published policy paper that explicitly employed the geographic frame of the Indo-Pacific.[37]

Drawing connections between Karl Haushofer’s prewar geopolitical ideas and the visions or strategies for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific in the present insinuates continuities between Japanese wartime policies and current foreign and security policies given the known reception of the German scholar’s ideas in Imperial Japan. This is obviously highly problematic and inevitably also a political statement, especially so given Abe’s known conservatism, hawkish security policies, and his controversial views on World War II. More importantly, as demonstrated here, it is also false.

The conceptualization of an Indo-Pacific region in 2007 was motivated by the wish for closer relations and especially also security cooperation between Japan and India and was disjunct from discussions that had taken place nearly a century ago. The focus on the maritime domain naturally led to the use of the term to stress the connections between or confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans to describe the resulting new regional conceptualization – Karl Haushofer had no influence whatsoever.


[1] This article does neither attempt to provide a comprehensive assessment of Shinzō Abe’s terms in office nor of his policies. Many such attempts have been published after Abe’s stepping down from the premiership and again after his murder. Abe was murdered in 2022 by a man blaming the former prime minister and his party, the Liberal Democratic Party, for their ties to the Unification Church-cult, that according to him had ruined his family. For a biography see Tobias S. Harris, The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan (London: Hurst, 2020).

[2] Shinzō Abe, “Confluence of the Two Seas” Speech by H.E. Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan at the Parliament of the Republic of India, 22 August 2007, online available at URL: https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html

[3] Abe Shinzō 安倍晋三, Atarashii kuni e: Utsukushii kuni e, kanzenban新しい国へ : 美しい国へ完全版(Tōkyō: Bungei Shunjū, 2013), 163; Abe Shinzō 安倍晋三, Abe Shinzō kaikoroku安倍晋三回顧録, ed. Shigeru Kitamura 北村滋 (Tōkyō: Chūōkōron Shinsha, 2023), 314, 317.

[4] Jawaharlal Nehru, Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru (New York: The John Day Company, 1941), 29–30. The Russo-Japanese War of course also led to the Japanese colonization of Korea, which is not mentioned in either book.

[5] Australian Government, Department of Defense, Defense White Paper 2013, online available at URL: https://www.defence.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-08/WP_2013_web.pdf

[6] White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017, online available at: https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf

[7] Narendra Modi, Prime Minister’s Keynote Address at Shangri La Dialogue, 1 June 2018, online available at URL: https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/29943/Prime+Ministers+Keynote+Address+at+Shangri+La+Dialogue+June+01+2018

[8] Ministère des Armées, La stratégie de défense française dans l’Indopacifique, May 2019, available online at URL: https://www.archives.defense.gouv.fr/content/download/559433/9681745/file/La%20Strat%C3%A9gie%20de%20d%C3%A9fense%20fran%C3%A7aise%20en%20Indopacifique%20-%20R%C3%A9sum%C3%A9%20-%202019.pdf

[9] ASEAN Secretariat, ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, 23 June 2019, online available at: https://asean.org/asean2020/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/ASEAN-Outlook-on-the-Indo-Pacific_FINAL_22062019.pdf

[10] Auswärtiges Amt, Leitlinien zum Indopazifik, August 2020, online available at URL: https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/blob/2380500/33f978a9d4f511942c241eb4602086c1/200901-indo-pazifik-leitlinien–1–data.pdf

[11] European Commission, Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council, The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, 16 September 2021, online available at URL: https://www.eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/jointcommunication_2021_24_1_en.pdf

[12] Cabinet Office, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, 2 July 2021, online available at URL: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/global-britain-in-a-competitive-age-the-integrated-review-of-security-defence-development-and-foreign-policy/global-britain-in-a-competitive-age-the-integrated-review-of-security-defence-development-and-foreign-policy

[13] Government of the Republic of Korea, Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region, 28 December 2022, online available at URL: https://overseas.mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5676/view.do?seq=322133

[14] Minister of Foreign Affairs, Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, 2022, online available at URL: https://www.international.gc.ca/transparency-transparence/assets/pdfs/indo-pacific-indo-pacifique/indo-pacific-indo-pacifique-en.pdf

[15] Timothy Doyle and Dennis Rumley, The Rise and Return of the Indo-Pacific (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 6–7, 29–30, 33–35.

[16] Paco Milhiet, “La France et l’Indo-Pacifique: perspectives polynésiennes,” Les Jeunes IHEDN, 1 June 2020, online available at URL: https://www.jeunes-ihedn.org/2020/cca-17-la-france-et-lindo-pacifique-perspectives-polynesiennes/#_ftn3

[17] Urbi Das, “Evolution of Indo-Japan Economic Ties,” Indian Foreign Affairs Journal Vol. 16, No. 3 (2021): 277–290, 278.

[18] Barbara Kratiuk, “Introduction,” in Barbara Kratiuk, Jeroen Van den Bosch, Aleksandra Jaskólska, Yoichiro Sato (eds.) Handbook of Indo-Pacific Studies, 1–8 (London: Routledge, 2023), 1–2.

[19] David Camroux, “Europe rediscovers the Indo-Pacific,” East Asia Forum, 23 December 2020, online available at URL: https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/12/23/europe-rediscovers-the-indo-pacific/

[20] Chengxin Pan, “The ‘Indo-Pacific’ and Geopolitical Anxieties about China’s Rise in the Asian Regional Order,” Australian Journal of International Affairs Vol. 68, No. 4 (2014): 453–469, 454.

[21] Hansong Li, “The ‘Indo-Pacific’: Intellectual Origins and International Visions in Global Contexts,” Modern Intellectual History Vol 19, No. 3 (2022): 807–833, 807–808.

[22] Hansong Li李汉松, “Zhongsi ‘Yintai’ gainian de qianshi jinsheng重思‘印太’概念的前世今生,” Pengpai澎湃, 27 December 2020, online available at URL: https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_10533218

[23] “Free and open indo-Pacific,” Wikipedia as of 30 December 2023, online available at URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_and_Open_Indo-Pacific#cite_ref-2, see also “Indo-Pacific,” Wikipedia as of 4 January 2024, online available at URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Pacific

[24] Christian W. Spang, Karl Haushofer und Japan: Die Rezeption seiner geopolitischen Theorien in der deutschen und japanischen Politik (Munich: Iudicium, 2013), 331, 335, 338–341, 363, 715.

[25] Shinzo Abe, Remarks by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the occasion of accepting Hudson Institute’s 2013 Herman Kahn Award, 25 September 2013, Online available at URL: https://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/statement/201309/25hudson_e.html

[26] Shinzō Abe, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” Project Syndicate, 27 December 2012, Online available at URL: https://www.project-syndicate.org/magazine/a-strategic-alliance-for-japan-and-india-by-shinzo-abe.

[27] Joseph R. Biden, Narendra Modi, Scott Morrison, Yoshihide Suga, “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: ‘The Spirit of the Quad’,” The White House, 12 March 2021, Online available at URL: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/12/quad-leaders-joint-statement-the-spirit-of-the-quad/

[28] Shinzō Abe, “Address by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Opening Session of the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) (Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC), Nairobi, Kenya),” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 27 August 2016, online available at URL: https://www.mofa.go.jp/afr/af2/page4e_000496.html

[29] Abe Shinzō 安倍晋三, Abe Shinzō kaikoroku安倍晋三回顧録, 314, 318.

[30] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan, 2017 Japanese Diplomatic Blue Book (Tokyo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2017), 26.

[31] Personal communication, 20 September 2023.

[32] I am indebted to Tomohiko Taniguchi for pointing this out. The first articles published in Japan since the end of World War II mentioning Haushofer appear to be the global history in the Mainichi Shinbun, Mainichi Shinbun (Tōkyō Chōkan), Book Watching: Shinkan “Sekaishi de manabe! Chiseigaku” Mogi Makoto ブックウオッチング:新刊『世界史で学べ!地政学』茂木誠, 15 July 2015: 16, and an introduction to the concept of geopolitics in the Asahi Shinbun in 2016, Miyashiro Eiichi 宮代栄一, “Bunka no tobira: Hajimete no chiseigaku, teikokushugi no sanbutsu, sukeru seikai jōsei文化の扉:はじめての地政学 帝国主義の産物、透ける世界情勢,” Asahi Shinbun 朝日新聞, 20 March 2016: 36.

[33] See for example Department of Zoology, British Museum, Report on the Zoological Collections made in the Indo-Pacific Ocean During the Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Alert’ 1881–2 (London: Taylor and Francis, 1884).

[34] Gurpreet S. Khurana, “Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India–Japan Cooperation,” Strategic Analysis Vol. 31, no. 1 (2007): 139–153, 139, 150.

[35] Personal communication, 2 November 2023.

[36] Hillary R. Clinton, “America’s Engagement in the Asia-Pacific,” U.S. Department of State, Diplomacy in Action, 28 October 2010, online available at URL: https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/20092013clinton/rm/2010/10/150141.htm

[37] Australian Government, Department of Defense, Defense White Paper 2013, 7.

About the Author

David M. Malitz is a Senior Research Fellow with the German Institute of Japanese Studies (DIJ) in Tokyo, where he works on Japanese-Southeast Asian relations with a focus on Thailand and the Mekong-Region. Prior to joining the DIJ, David taught at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. He holds a PhD in Japanese Studies from the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich.

Citation: David Malitz, Karl who? – Haushofer, Japan and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.02.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50314

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Forum Transregionale Studien (1. Februar 2024). Karl who? – Haushofer, Japan and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/vqcb

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