Though there was once again no shortage of issues discussed among delegates at this year’s iteration of the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore over the weekend, by far the most prominent one was the U.S. concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP). Though U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis offered further clarity on FOIP in his address at the SLD, there still remain significant questions about the strategy, its future prospects, and the role that the region, particularly Southeast Asia, will play in Washington’s approach.
As I have indicated previously, the Trump administration deserves credit for quickly beginning to articulate its commitment and approach to Asia, including by unveiling FOIP, the outlines of which were laid out by the president himself at APEC in Vietnam last year on his inaugural Asia voyage (See: “Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Challenge“). New U.S. administrations tend to create anxiety about the sustainability and shape of American commitment to the region, and this was especially the case with the Trump administration due to both its unconventional nature as well as some of its early actions, including withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The very process of unveiling a strategic regional vision is also a much more difficult task for U.S. policymakers than most outside observers often appreciate, so getting started on this early on in the president’s term is important.
FOIP also makes sense as a strategy for the United States to advance in concert with willing and able allies, partners, and friends. The references to a “free” and “open” Indo-Pacific places the emphasis on a positive vision for Washington to strengthen a fraying U.S.-led rules-based international order under threat from regional power shifts, revisionist powers, and rogue regimes. And articulating and defending a set of principles, including freedom for sovereign governments to pursue their interests and for societies to advance their rights, as well as the openness of various domains, including sea and air, trade, investment, and infrastructure, is a concern that other regional governments share as well, albeit to different degrees.
Yet it is also true that, since FOIP was first articulated last year and despite multiple public clarifications by the Trump administration since then, there are still some basic concerns that remain unaddressed. Those concerns are largely around three areas: the rationale and nature of the initiative; the extent to which it will actually be followed through on and properly implemented and resourced; and the role that Southeast Asia and ASEAN will actually play in its execution beyond the rhetoric.
The first concern relates to what exactly FOIP is. U.S. officials have wisely initially defined it broadly and inclusively as a desire by Washington, in concert with willing and able allies, partners, and friends, to articulate and defend a set of principles. And they have also rightly defined this as a whole-of-government and comprehensive approach in recognition of regional concerns that it might come across as too security-focused. It is no coincidence, for instance, that Mattis’ SLD speech this year made reference to nonsecurity realms such as private sector-led economic development and strengthening rule of law, civil society, and transparent governance.
Yet to some, FOIP still feels too much like a narrower, security-first effort to bring India into the fold as part of a more muscular approach directed at China. That geopolitical imperative is no doubt one part of the rationale for the policy, and it bears noting that some forward-leaning countries in the Asia-Pacific not only welcome a tougher line on China but also see it as long overdue. At the same time, if FOIP is viewed too narrowly as being only or mostly about getting tough on China, it will find fewer takers in the region relative to a more comprehensive approach that recognizes the fluidity of regional alignments and the importance of other intraregional security challenges, ranging from transnational crimes to climate change. It is especially concerning, for example, that despite repeated protestations and clarifications by the administration, there is still a tendency to conflate FOIP with the evolving quadrilateral arrangement between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India (or “Asia’s Quad” for short), despite the fact that there is much more to it than that.
The second concern is the extent to which the United States will actually be able to implement FOIP. It is certainly true that skepticism around follow through and resourcing tends to dog any initiative coming out of Washington, including the “pivot” or “rebalance” during the Obama years, and that some of this criticism ignores some inroads that have been made so far under Trump, including a more robust defense budget as well as the high levels of engagement with some regional governments. But there are also aspects of this concern that are unique to the Trump administration, be it the high level of disarray that can cloud or complicate policy clarity or worrying actions taken in areas like trade that run counter to greater regional demands for robust U.S. economic engagement.
The strategic consequences of this concern cannot simply be written off. These individual grievances add up and play into the continuing indecisiveness in the region about whether to simply manage and ride out a one-term holding pattern in U.S. policy that will end in the next election, or whether to actually make the kind of longer-term strategic realignments that will define ties with major powers for years to come. They can also intensify tendencies in some Asian capitals to either lean more toward Beijing in some areas or to engage selectively rather than strategically with Washington, thereby limiting the contributions that allies, partners, and friends can make as part of FOIP.
The third and final concern is the role of Southeast Asia and ASEAN in this strategy. The Trump administration deserves credit for its willingness to listen to perspectives in Washington and in regional capitals about how the subregion views the strategy and what are the best ways to include it as part of FOIP. Administration officials, including Mattis in his Shangri-La Dialogue speech this weekend, have also gone through great lengths to talk the talk, including emphasizing ASEAN centrality which, irrespective of its reality, is nonetheless an important signal to send in Southeast Asia, especially this year when Singapore, which hosts the SLD, is also chairing ASEAN.
Walking the walk, however, will prove more challenging. In Washington, there is still an entrenched bias in U.S. Asia policy toward Northeast Asia, and the U.S. approach to Southeast Asia has often been more of an appendage of wider regional policies or in response to broader extraregional challenges, rather than one that actually focuses on the subregion’s value in its own right (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test“). Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, as the United States looks to integrate Southeast Asia into a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, the region in some ways looks more unfree and closed than ever, with democracy on the retreat in some countries and ASEAN’s impotence on issues like the South China Sea looking clearer than ever. Irrespective of the validity of these concerns, this perception makes it more difficult for U.S. policymakers to articulate and then message Southeast Asia’s centrality in FOIP domestically and internationally in a way that is credible and consistent.
To be sure, these challenges are far from insurmountable. As I have repeatedly pointed out, it is still early days in this administration and in its FOIP strategy, and if the Asia-firsters in it can get their way and the “America First” impulses can be kept in check, some inroads can be made through the rest of the year and into 2019. If the administration can find its footing on trade, that will also give reality to a more well-rounded and comprehensive whole of government approach that Mattis referred to in his SLD address, rather than the current one which privileges certain bureaucracies over others and relies more on individual competent personnel than an integrated vision.
Yet at the same time, Washington must recognize that it does not have the luxury of time. The longer that messaging gaps on the initiative are left to linger, the greater the risk that they will undermine its prospects, with so small help from Washington’s rivals and adversaries. Events can also quickly overtake or detract from FOIP’s prospects, be it election campaigns or outcomes in influential regional states that can lead to periods of inward thinking or even strategic recalibration, or unforeseen extraregional foreign policy crises that can take divert the gaze of a global superpower away from Asia. The clock is ticking on FOIP, and for the Trump administration to confront the challenges the strategy poses and seize the opportunities it offers.