Nearly one year in to the United States, Japan, Australia, and India’s collective pursuit of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” broad misunderstandings of the policy’s intentions and objectives endure. These hyper-analytic concerns are misguided and limit experts’ capacity to evaluate tangible, fact-based shifts in regional powers’ Indo-Pacific policy.
Despite robust evidence to the contrary, some continue to insist that the free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) represents an anti-China alliance or a sophisticated U.S.-led containment strategy. This analysis overlooks the regionally-driven nature of the strategy, which was first announced by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in August 2016. Furthermore, Australia began using the “Indo-Pacific” construct in official government documents as early as 2013. India’s “Act East” policy, which is a foundational element of its “free, open, and inclusive” vision for the Indo-Pacific region, was initially unveiled in 2014.
Perhaps pundits’ confusion can be attributed to the absence of a single coherent document from Quad countries defining what FOIP actually is. But such a document would actually erode the strength of a truly “free and open Indo-Pacific” by constraining each state from shaping their own policy over time in the ways that support its national interests. A common public document would also diminish the inclusivity Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi so aptly stresses and limit ASEAN’s ability to play a central role.
This is not to say that Indo-Pacific states should be content to develop their own strategies in complete isolation. To the contrary, countries throughout the region interested in the maintenance of a free and open order should develop a common operating picture at the government-to-government level for the Indo-Pacific and its future. In the past few months, onlookers have seen a lot of progress on this front — the overwhelming congruities in the United States, Australia, Japan, and India’s respective strategies are indicative of this. However, instead of strategic consultations being a “one-off” event in preparation for a strategic review, states should institutionalize and regularize these contacts to ensure that one another’s insights are enriching allies’ and partners’ approaches.
Nearly a year after the roll-out of the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, it is time to shift away from discussing what FOIP is or isn’t, and instead focus on indicators to gauge success. Unfortunately for policymakers, expectations among the expert community and the region are high, and it will require concrete actions, rather than rhetoric, to interrupt China’s narrative of the inextricable U.S. decline and withdrawal from the Pacific theater.
Given ongoing U.S.-China trade tensions, there is an inherent friction in promoting a positive U.S. vision for the region while pursuing the most aggressive stance against the People’s Republic of China since the re-establishment of diplomatic ties.
Without public acknowledgement that the United States’ regional aspirations are derived solely based on U.S. interests, and not driven by concerns about who China might be, or what the Chinese Communist Party might do, onlookers will always doubt the veracity of U.S. commitment. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to skip the annual APEC, ASEAN, and EAS summits will only amplify regional concerns that America’s commitment is opportunistic, and not enduring.
No component of the United States’ FOIP strategy has struggled to take root more than the economic dimension. Despite the Trump administration’s November 2017 announcement that it is willing to pursue “free, fair, and reciprocal” trade agreements with any nation willing, there is no visible substantive progress on a new U.S. bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with an Indo-Pacific nation. This can be partially attributed to limited capacity at the United States Trade Representatives (USTR) office, overstretched with ongoing NAFTA negotiations and the implementation of U.S. tariffs targeting China. Japan’s decision to play a leadership role in the actualization of the revamped Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), though damaging for long-standing U.S. credibility in the region, demonstrated that U.S.-aligned countries are capable of taking a leadership role when required. Although this model might be sustainable for the short term, perennial U.S. abdication of regional economic leadership is a recipe for continued erosion of liberal, democratic values.
In addition to concern surrounding the U.S. economic agenda, how the United States and its Indo-Pacific partners will choose to promote good governance remains a concern among non-democratic and partially democratized states across the region. A central test of FOIP’s effectiveness will be its ability to promote strong institutions and respect for the inherent rights of the individual without isolating key partners in the region.
For example, the reinvigoration of long-standing U.S. alliances with the Philippines and Thailand could support the development of a more inclusive Indo-Pacific vision, less reliant on the Quad. Rather than hewing solely to mutual defense commitments and strong military-to-military ties with the Philippines and Thailand, the United States should diversify and deepen economic and people-to-people interactions with these countries, demonstrating the inherent value of a free and open Indo-Pacific through our actions, not just words. In time, this will also promote the development of the strong institutions and values needed to actualize a truly “free” Indo-Pacific region.
Actualizing the region’s Indo-Pacific vision will necessitate a special emphasis on creating and sustaining a networked web of bilateral and trilateral relationships. Other like-minded partners should step up cooperation in third-country locations most at risk of falling into illiberal behavior. Recent reports that the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, France, and New Zealand are considering increasing diplomatic staffing and coordination in the Pacific Islands is an excellent example of the “diplomatic defense” work required to ensure that contested spaces are able to remain free from coercion.
However, a strategy rooted in defense will never be sustainable in the long-term. Across the region, decentralized and empowered embassy staff from like-mined countries should work in real time to have impact in the field, and then feed timely, fact-based analysis into the policy discussions happening in their respective capitals. Furthermore, affirmative programs such as the U.S.-Taiwan “Global Cooperation and Training Framework” should be expanded and used as a template for U.S. and allied technical capacity-building throughout the Indian Ocean Region.
One of the little-discussed realities a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is that the strategy is rooted in the keen recognition that the United States alone will never be capable of achieving and securing the future many states envision for this region. That so many diverse nations, all of which have long-standing and deep ties rooted in shared values, are able to cooperatively develop and support this shared vision is something quite special. Solutions like these should serve as a template for 21st century global U.S. engagement. It’s time to stop debating what a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is or isn’t, and instead focus on what it takes to make it work.
Abigail Grace is a research associate with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She served as a member of the National Security Council staff from 2016-2018.