On June 1, 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released its first Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. The official DoD press release describes the Report as an “implementation document” articulating the Department’s role in Trump administration’s broader vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), which emphasizes respect for sovereignty and economic development of all nations within the region subject to a multilaterally-derived, rules-based order. To realize this vision, the Report identifies three pillars of DoD implementation: preparedness, partnerships, and the promotion of a networked region.
This is not new policy; the three pillars are a continuation of the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific “rebalance” and closely mirror the three key ways then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter saw the region giving rise to a “principled security network” in 2016. The familiar policy contextualizes a significant, if brief, break from U.S. diplomatic norms: among the allies and partners listed in the Report, Taiwan is listed as a country with which the United States has an existing partnership.
The centrality of partnerships in the Report and the U.S. government objective to further network regional partners beyond the traditional U.S. hub-and-spoke Pacific alliance suggests that U.S. policy may catalyze Taiwan’s participation in the U.S.-aligned security architecture in the Western Pacific. Successful implementation of the Report’s second and third pillars represent thickened ties with Taiwan as an American partner and closer security cooperation between Taiwan and U.S. regional allies, constituting a cohesive security network balancing against threats and obstacles to the FOIP vision.
The FOIP Vision and Networking the Pacific
The Report forcefully claims that the United States is but one of several Pacific powers with a FOIP vision and names Japan, France, India, Australia, and New Zealand as allies and partners with whom the U.S. stands in solidarity. The vision is a regional one and faces a single regional obstacle. The Report and then-Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s accompanying speech at the 2019 Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore identify the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the primary obstacle to any international rules-based order. Said Shanahan in Singapore:
China can and should have a cooperative relationship with the rest of the region, too. But behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end.
Until it does, we stand against a myopic, narrow, and parochial vision of the future, and we stand for the free and open order that has benefitted us all—including China.
Shanahan’s coercive diplomacy makes clear how the FOIP strategy addresses and responds to the changing geopolitical realities of China’s rise to great power status in the Indo-Pacific: credible assurance of regional cooperation precedes the credible threat of a prepared, partnered, and networked coalition balancing against Chinese economic and military influence across the Indo-Pacific region. U.S. allies and partners, repeatedly referred to as “force multipliers” throughout the Report, empower this coalition and sharpen the credible threat to China for any behaviors detrimental to the FOIP vision.
In forming and tightening this Pacific coalition to balance against China, the FOIP strategy makes use of U.S. access to allies and partners, recognizing this as a competitive advantage which no rival can match. Placing allies and partners at the heart of the FOIP strategy effectively internationalizes the issue and moves the conflict away from great power struggle between the dominant United States and a rising China, instead reframing competition and conflict as whether Beijing will participate in or rebel against a rules-based order constituted by its Indo-Pacific neighbors. The FOIP strategy calls for a genuine coalition — not a collection of regional satellites advancing U.S. government policy — revealed by repeatedly calling on allies and partners to “contribute their fair share” to supporting the FOIP vision and by calling for increased networking to avoid the coalition’s centralization around the U.S. and its interests.
Dispelling the notion of hegemonic struggle requires updating the American presence in the Pacific from the traditional hub-and-spoke security architecture of bilateral treaty alliances between the U.S. and Indo-Pacific nations to a meaningful coalition of regional states networked with one another as well as with the United States. This process, called “networkization” (wangluohua) by Chinese scholars and termed “networking” in U.S. and Japanese foreign policy, is one in which the United States, as the nation at the locus of the security architecture being more cohesively networked, has an outsized role in setting nature and tone.
Expanding Taiwan’s Role as a Security Partner
The tone of the Report is notable for its singular departure from previously articulated U.S policy: the designation of Taiwan as a country and its comparatively high placement in the range of partnership types the Report identifies for the United States. The FOIP, according to the Report, identifies seven categories of allies and partners, which reflect a range of differently calibrated partnerships for the United States, likely ordered from most important to least in the Indo-Pacific theater. These categories are grouped under planned courses of action regarding each: 1) modernizing alliances, 2) strengthening partnerships, 3) expanding partnerships in the Indian Ocean region, 4) expanding partnerships in Southeast Asia, 5) sustaining engagements, strengthening foundations, 6) revitalized engagements in the Pacific Islands, and 7) engagements with other allies. The Report designates Taiwan as a country within the second category in language worth quoting at length:
As democracies in the Indo-Pacific, Singapore, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Mongolia are reliable, capable, and natural partners of the United States. All four countries contribute to U.S. missions around the world and are actively taking steps to uphold a free and open international order. The strength of these relationships is what we hope to replicate in our new and burgeoning relationships in the Indo-Pacific.
This reference to Taiwan as a country comparable to Singapore, New Zealand, and Mongolia is a critical departure from how the United States has historically referred to Taiwan in diplomatic parlance, particularly given that the Report drops the previously obligatory reference to the Three Joint Communiques, which, as of this writing, still appear at the top of the U.S. State Department’s Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet for Taiwan. While not referencing the Three Joint Communiques is not a clear rejection of the One China policy, the Report clearly identifies China as the primary obstacle for the FOIP vision and is correspondingly less deferential to Chinese sensitivities regarding Taiwan. The United States is articulating policy independent of China-appeasing language, and the Report should be understood as such. Taiwan’s categorization as a country in the second partnership category sets aside Chinese demands and clearly establishes it is not a special case or otherwise untouchable with regard to international engagement; Taiwan is rather a country, like Singapore, with which the U.S. intends to continue strengthening its partnership.
The United States, in issuing the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, uses American prerogative to set the nature and tone of interstate networking in the Indo-Pacific to facilitate increased Taiwanese access to international spaces and to urge other nations to more closely network with Taiwan in those spaces. The driving logic of networking is for aligned nations to develop and thicken ties with their partners as well as their partners’ partners. By designating Taiwan as a paradigmatic partner country in the second pillar of the Report, the U.S. implicitly also designates Taiwan as a partner with which other aligned nations should more closely network as a part of the third pillar. Whether U.S. Pacific partners comply and develop closer bilateral ties with Taiwan in the teeth of Chinese protests and threats remains an open question.
Indicators to Watch
Several key metrics in the coming months might reveal the cogency of the United States’ argument and whether identified partners and potential partners are aligned to the FOIP vision. The most critical metric will be the degree to which American treaty allies buy in to the Report’s formulation of FOIP implementation. Paramount among these allies are Japan and Australia, who have undertaken concerted efforts to network with one another as well as with India and Vietnam.
Consistent with the Indo-Pacific vision, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s government, an earlier iteration of which laid the foundations of the Indo-Pacific concept and which is today the United States’ closest partner in advancing the governments’ shared FOIP vision, has already begun exploring closer security and non-security ties with Taiwan. Though the Abe government demurred on Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s request for a formal security dialogue, the Report may provide political cover for and increase the political salience of factions in the National Diet favoring formal Japan-Taiwan security ties.
Similarly important will be Australia’s engagement with Taiwan. While the U.S., Japan, and Australia held a trilateral meeting of defense ministers at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the resulting press releases did not specifically mention Taiwan or make any reference to the cross-strait status quo. The Australian government has indirectly supported Taiwan’s diplomatic presence, announcing a sizeable infrastructure grant to the Solomon Islands as they consider whether to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and instead establish ties with China. Whether future U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral meetings will produce explicit support for Taiwan remains to be seen.
Also important will be the response from Southeast Asia, which will also speak to the success of the Tsai government’s New Southbound Policy. At the latest Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, held in Bangkok in late June 2019, regional leaders adopted and published an “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” document which breaks from U.S. interpretations of regional stressors. The document notes that “geopolitical and geostrategic shifts” have pervaded the Indo-Pacific in recent years and further contends that “the rise of material powers, i.e. economic and military, requires avoiding the deepening of mistrust, miscalculation, and patterns of behavior based on a zero-sum game.” Such a diagnosis appears to endorse the Chinese assessment that U.S.-China tensions in the region arise from the “zero-sum game” of great power competition rather than the U.S. interpretation that these tensions arise from Beijing’s employment of a “toolkit of coercion,” which flouts the international rules-based order and to which Washington is justifiably responding. The Outlook mirrors the message Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue: “The rest of the world has to adjust to a larger role for China,” and “the United States, being the preeminent power, has the most difficult adjustment to make.”
Although the United States has drawn closer its existing allies, potential partners in Southeast Asia continue to hedge between the U.S.-China conflict and appear hesitant to endorse a U.S.-led FOIP vision, particularly one which considers Taiwan a country. Whether the U.S. can make converts of these countries will measure the success of Indo-Pacific Strategy implementation and the potential of Taiwan’s further integration into the regional security network.
Howard Wang is broadly interested in East Asian security architecture. His writing has been published in China Brief, The National Interest, and The Georgetown Security Studies Review. He received his MPP from Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and his B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science from Boston University.