The Debate

What Does a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ Actually Mean?

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The Debate

What Does a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ Actually Mean?

A look at the significance and prospects of the new concept.

What Does a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ Actually Mean?
Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

The new catchphrase coming out of Washington regarding U.S. Asia policy is “a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” The meaning of this phrase is somewhat nebulous, and therefore its significance and prospects for realization are also unclear. These questions are currently being discussed and debated in the U.S. Asia policy community and throughout Asia.

As an example of the view from the region, prominent Australian analyst Rory Medcalf argues that the “Indo-Pacific” aspect of this concept “recasts the mental map of some of the most strategically important parts of the globe.” It recognizes “that the accelerating economic and security connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean are creating a single strategic system.” A Free and Open Indo-Pacific is seen by some Asian analysts as an extension of the Asia-Pacific security concept to the Indian Ocean region, including U.S. values and principles that it believes underpin the regional order.

But why is this concept being proposed and is it significant? Many analysts think this new U.S. policy initiative is driven by a perceived challenge from China to the existing Western-dominated international order. Brian Hook, a State Department adviser, asserts that this order “is the foundation of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and also around the world. When China’s behavior is out of step with these values and these rules, we will stand up and defend the rule of law.” So it would seem that the regional acceptance and successful implementation of this U.S. reaction to China’s assertiveness will be highly significant to the geopolitical future of the region.

But what does it mean in principle? According to then U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, the core tenets of the concept include freedom of navigation, the rule of law, freedom from coercion, respect for sovereignty, private enterprise, and open markets, and the freedom and independence of all nations. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific is an attempt to unify and integrate these widely accepted principles in one rhetorical concept. However, some of these principles — like freedom of navigation, and respect for sovereignty — are controversial in the region and sometimes not observed by even their most ardent supporters. Different interpretations of these principles will have to be reconciled.

Within this framework, the United States is proposing – and pushing for – a renewal of the so-called “Quad” – a potential security arrangement among the four large democracies of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States. To this end, it has initiated a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among these nations. The charter of the Quad is yet to be negotiated, but if and when it is, it probably will have three main objectives — to reinforce the existing rule-based regional order; to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation; and to provide mutual security assurances.

One obstacle to its successful implementation is that China thinks this policy gambit and its conceptual framework are aimed at containing and constraining it. China is pushing back. Although the United States is the established dominant hard and soft power in the region, a rising China has increasing leverage over each of the potential U.S. security partners. Indeed, the Quad’s success as a security arrangement will likely hinge on whether the prospective members can resist the pressure from China.

China’s economic dynamism, influence, and largess are well-known and widespread. China is the most important trading partner for both Australia and India — particularly as an export market for their raw materials. Australia is also the second largest recipient of Chinese direct investment. Meanwhile, Japan‘s economy is constrained by an aging, shrinking population and thus a deepening dependence on China’s growth. Japan’s exports to China now exceed those to the United States and account for nearly 20 percent of its total exports. These economic links will influence decisions of prospective Quad members.

As Australian analyst Michael Wesley puts it, “We’re facing an uncomfortable fact: that the major source of our economic prosperity is potentially in a position to challenge our most sacred values…  It forces us to think about potentially forgoing some of that prosperity to stand up for what we believe in.”  This dilemma applies in some fashion to all the prospective Quad members as well as its supporters.

For Japan, its worst nightmare is subjugation by a vindictive China exacting revenge for the Japanese military’s behavior in China prior to and during World War II. Tokyo fears that if the boot is on China’s foot, it will act the same way. As a hint of perhaps more to come, when Japan “misbehaves” in China’s eyes, China steps up tension in the East China Sea.

China has several ways to pressure India if it so desires — including withdrawing desperately needed assistance in infrastructure development, making military mischief along their common and disputed border, beefing up its presence in the Indian Ocean, and providing increased military aid to India’s archenemy Pakistan.

As for smaller countries to be greatly affected, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that he did not “want to end up with rival blocks forming” to manage China’s rise, and suggested that, ideally, the Quad would evolve into part of “an inclusive and open regional architecture.” Since Singapore is current chair of ASEAN, Lee’s views carry considerable weight in Southeast Asia.

There are several practical problems with the implementation of this new conceptual construct. For the United States, the threat throughout this region is very uneven and some parts will require more focus than others. Moreover, in practice the U.S. strategic focus on East and Southeast Asia is unlikely to change, despite the addition of a rhetorical emphasis on the Indian Ocean.

A security Quad and therefore a “Free and Open Indo -Pacific” is not a done deal. Stresses and strains in the U.S.-China relationship are rapidly pushing the potential members and supporting smaller countries beyond waffling and hedging.

Van Jackson of New Zealand’s Victoria University thinks that:

Parts of Asia will continue to support and enforce a rules-based liberal order. Other parts will fall unquestionably within a Chinese sphere of influence. Still others will continue trying to hedge between China and the United States even as the foreign policies of each undergo major changes. The great risk is that opposing visions of order cannot stay forever autonomous from one another, and may instead become a basis for future fault lines.

Indeed, cracks and fault lines are already beginning to open up in the region’s geopolitical construct.

The general conclusion is that a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is a work in progress. It could be of immense significance to the region — and to its progenitor the United States. But it has many obstacles – both conceptual and practical — to overcome. It is not clear that this construct will survive beyond the current troubled U.S. administration. Indeed, it may collapse like a house of cards under pressure from both China and reality.

Mark J. Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.