Last year, the U.S. State Department officially shut the door on the Obama administration’s Rebalance, or Pivot, to Asia. Susan Thornton, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told reporters at a briefing to look forward to the Trump administration’s strategy. “We haven’t seen in detail what the formulation will be or if there even will be a formulation,” she noted.
In recent months, we have seen a formulation take shape. While it remains amorphous, the Trump administration, leading into the president’s first trip to Asia in November 2017, laid the ground work for what is now the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Trump addressed this during his speech on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, and was poised to further elaborate on the concept at the plenary of the East Asia Summit, which he decided to skip, ultimately.
On Tuesday, Alex Wong, a deputy assistant secretary of state at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, convened a briefing on what is now the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy — yes, the ‘S’ in strategy is capitalized and part of the initiative’s name now, suggesting a new degree of seriousness. For this administration, there is now a clear formulation driving its approach to Asia.
Reading the transcript of Wong’s remarks on the strategy, however, I came away disappointed and still wanting more detail on how and where the rubber will hit the road on the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Stratgy” (FOIPS). More interestingly, much of what Wong says betrays the remarkable continuity in this strategy from the Obama administration. While the “Rebalance” wasn’t necessarily built around the same kind of normative ballast as FOIPS, the end state for Asia articulated in the latter is something the former sought to attain.
Wong sought to carefully break down what exactly the administration meant by “free” and “open,” highlighting a familiar range of priorities — many of which were emphasized by the November 2017 working-level meeting of the so-called Asian ‘quadrilateral’ grouping comprising the United States, India, Japan, and Australia.
First, Wong addresses the “free” component of FOIPS:
So by free we mean, first of all, the international plane. We want the nations of the Indo-Pacific to be free from coercion, that they can pursue in a sovereign manner the paths they choose in the region. Secondly, we mean at the national level, we want the societies of the various Indo-Pacific countries to become progressively more free – free in terms of good governance, in terms of fundamental rights, in terms of transparency and anti-corruption.
And then, he moves on to describing what “open” means:
Moving on to open – by open, we first and foremost mean open sea lines of communication and open airways. These open sea lines of communication are truly the lifeblood of the region. And if you look at world trade, with 50 percent of trade going through the Indo-Pacific along the sea routes, particularly through the South China Sea, open sea lanes and open airways in the Indo-Pacific are increasingly vital and important to the world.
Secondly, we mean more open logistics – infrastructure. There’s an infrastructure gap throughout the Indo-Pacific. What is needed throughout the region to encourage greater regional integration, encourage greater economic growth? We want to assist the region in doing infrastructure in the right way, infrastructure that truly does drive integration and raises the GDPs of the constituent economies, not weigh them down.
We also mean more open investment. For decades, the United States has supported more open investment environments, more transparent regulatory structures, so that it’s not – so that the region is not only open to more U.S. foreign direct investment, but that indigenous populations, indigenous innovators, indigenous entrepreneurs can take advantage of the investment environments to drive economic growth throughout the region.
And we also mean more open trade. Free, fair, and reciprocal trade is something the United States has supported for decades and that the Trump administration supports.
That last paragraph in the description of “open” certainly doesn’t go down easily with everything else this administration has pursued when it comes to trade policy. Whatever the Trump administration’s basket of trade policy preferences are, they are certainly not the same ones the United States has “supported for decades.” That alone will make at least part of the FOIPS agenda difficult to credibly communicate.
But taken in sum, the core of FOIPS is familiar and is a statement of an end-state in Asia — one that is modeled on the regional status quo and under threat today as China rises. The big “new” additions — the focus on transparent infrastructure financing and regulatory structures — are in vogue today as China’s Belt and Road Initiative pushes on, but Wong fails to address how the United States will go about operationalizing this new strategy to ultimately deliver on these goals.
Wong was also pushed during the briefing by an AFP reporter, asked to square how the administration’s walk away from free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership square with the stated goals of the FOIPS. But there too, his answer is unconvincing. He acknowledges that “there are strategic benefits to a regional free trade pact that includes the United States and our partners in the region” — something that I doubt Trump would concur with — and adds that “it’s important not to put the strategic cart before the economic horse.”
The recent signing of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has laid bare that, in the meantime, that the remaining 11 TPP states have moved on without Washington. Toward the end of the briefing, Wong is also hit with the awkward fact of Trump’s recent remarks on the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. (He hinted that he would hold the renegotiated deal hostage to developments with North Korea.)
The administration still has its work cut out in operationalizing the FOIPS. To be charitable, these are still early days for the strategy and the Obama administration certainly faced its own shortcomings in marrying rhetoric to action with much of the Rebalance. But the Trump administration’s challenges in Asia are especially acute today as a newly confident and powerful China asserts itself in Asia, in clear pursuit of regional hegemony in the coming decades.
For more on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, listen to a recent episode of The Diplomat‘s podcast on Asian Geopolitics here.