Unpacking the Free and Open Indo-Pacific

smith FOIP

With the winds of geopolitical change sweeping Asia, the Trump administration has unveiled new concept that is generating equal parts interest and confusion. On his tour of Asia in November, President Donald Trump began promoting a new vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” America’s “interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific extends back to the earliest days of our republic,” the administration’s National Security Strategy declared the following month. Key cabinet members have been promoting the concept since October.

The term’s rapid adoption by the Trump administration has left many domestic and international observers perplexed. At one recent policy roundtable in Washington, confusion prevailed, with Asia experts of different political persuasions pressing administration officials to define the new concept and its policy significance.

Some have conflated the Free and Open Indo-Pacific with the older, simpler “Indo-Pacific” construct. Others have mistaken it for anti-China containment policy. In truth, it is neither, though it does represent an emerging fault line between China and the democratic “Quad” of the Indo-Pacific: Australia, Japan, India, and the United States. Rather, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific represents a specific vision for a rules-based order governing one of the world’s most dynamic regions — an order the United States and the Quad view as increasingly under duress from a more assertive and ambitious China.

The Indo-Pacific

Defining the Free and Open Indo-Pacific requires first distinguishing it from, and understanding its relationship to, the Indo-Pacific concept at its foundation. The Indo-Pacific has slowly gained popularity over the past decade as a means of redefining the geostrategic boundaries of the Asia-Pacific. Rather than positing a sharp division between the Indian and Pacific Oceans — or between South and East Asia — the Indo-Pacific encourages us to think about this super-region as a unitary, interconnected geostrategic space.

A leading advocate of the concept, Australian analyst Rory Medcalf, argues the Indo-Pacific “recasts the mental map of some of the most strategically important parts of the globe.” It means “recognizing that the accelerating economic and security connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean are creating a single strategic system.”

The foundations for the contemporary use of the Indo-Pacific were arguably laid by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who spoke of a “dynamic coupling” of the Indian and Pacific Oceans in a 2007 speech to the Indian parliament titled “Confluence of the Two Seas.” For Abe, the original “Indo-Pacific” concept was always paired with a normative vision for the region. In his 2007 speech, he envisioned an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity…along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent” and implored India to “work alongside us to enrich the seas of freedom and prosperity, which will be open and transparent to all.” However, this component was largely abandoned for the simpler geographic/geostrategic paradigm that entered the discourse in the early 2010s.

In 2011 senior U.S. officials began adopting the Indo-Pacific terminology and it was formally incorporated in the Australian government’s 2013 Defense White Paper. After some initial hesitation, India has also warmed to the term, though the same cannot be said for China, whose Global Times newspaper deemed it an “empty slogan.”

Several geostrategic trends are responsible for the growing popularity of the Indo-Pacific. China’s strategic attention and agenda have been steadily drawn westward, a phenomenon amplified by President Xi Jinping’s plans for an expansive connectivity network through the Indian Ocean and Eurasian supercontinent, the Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, India has upgraded a decades-old “Look East” policy to an “Act East” policy in an attempt to atone for its 20th century neglect of East and Southeast Asia. In recent years Delhi has forged and elevated several strategic partnerships in East Asia, most notably with Japan.

The Indo-Pacific also emphasizes the increasingly vital role of the Indian Ocean (and the maritime arena more broadly) as both a conduit for global trade and an emerging arena of competition. Bookended by two of the world’s most critical trade chokepoints, the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, the Indian Ocean’s sea lines of communication connect Asian energy consumers to their suppliers in the Middle East.

In 2008, the Chinese navy began plying the waters of the Indian Ocean on a routine basis for the first time in modern history. Chinese anti-piracy patrols begun that year were followed by nuclear and conventional submarine deployments in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, China reached an agreement with Djibouti to establish its first overseas military base and recent reports suggest China plans to build a new naval base at Pakistan’s Gwadar port. For its part, India is conducting more naval deployments to and exercises in the Western Pacific and has become a vocal advocate for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Ultimately, the “Indo-Pacific” attempts to elevate the importance of the maritime domain and encapsulate the geopolitical consequences of China pushing west and India pushing east, creating an expanding zone of competitive overlap and progressively binding the Indian and Pacific Oceans to each other and to overland strategic developments in South and East Asia.

The Free and Open Indo-Pacific

Whereas the Indo-Pacific represents an effort to create a new geographic and geopolitical paradigm, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific is a normative concept imbued with the values, principles, and norms the United States and other Quad members see as underpinning the informal regional order. (The distinction is being progressively blurred by shorthand references to the administration’s “Indo-Pacific strategy.”)

In recent years the United States and its democratic partners have expressed growing alarm at signs China has begun to erode the informal set of rules, principles, and norms that have fostered an extended era of peace and prosperity across the region. Since 2015 this has resulted in growing references in public speeches and policy documents to the importance of the “rules-based order” and the degree to which it’s under duress from China’s rise.

At the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the “U.S.-anchored rules-based order” as a “remarkable system where nations big and small play by the rules and respect each others’ sovereignty.” At the same forum Secretary of Defense James Mattis made 11 references to the rules-based order. In the fall, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson implored India and the United States to stand “firm in defense of a rules-based order to promote sovereign countries’ unhindered access to the planet’s shared spaces.”

By October 2017, the Trump administration began replacing or complementing mention of the rules-based order with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Trump repeatedly returned the concept on his Asia tour in November: “I’m here to advance peace, to promote security and to work with you to achieve a truly free and open Indo-Pacific.”

As with the Indo-Pacific concept, Abe had an influential role in the origins of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. In an August 2016 speech in Africa, Abe insisted Japan “bears the responsibility of fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion.” Three months later, the week Trump was elected, Abe briefed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his new “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

A New Type of Major Power Competition

What exactly do the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and the rules-based order represent? According to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, the core tenets include:

  • Freedom of navigation and overflight
  • The rule of law
  • Freedom from coercion
  • Respect for sovereignty
  • Private enterprise and open markets
  • Freedom and independence of all nations

While the United States and its Quad partners have long supported these tenets, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific is an attempt to unify them under one rhetorical concept in light of new challenges from China. (The other Quad capitals haven’t formally endorsed the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, but each has voiced support for its underlying principles and the rules-based order more broadly.)

It is widely accepted that Chinese foreign policy has assumed a more assertive and nationalist character since 2008, punctuated by a series of crises and elevated friction along its disputed land and maritime borders: from constructing and militarizing artificial islands and attempting to restrict freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, to launching prolonged incursions across the disputed China-India border and repeatedly threatening its neighbors with war.

Over the past five years this assertiveness has assumed new forms. Since Xi’s rise to power in late 2012 and the unveiling of the Belt and Road Initiative the following year, Chinese foreign policy has grown more vindictive and intrusive, and its disregard for international law more brazen. Beijing has demonstrated greater contempt for the sovereignty of its peers, brazenly interfering in their domestic affairs and wielding its growing economic leverage as a punitive extension of its foreign policy. Beijing, the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy warns, is:

using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations… China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific. States throughout the region are calling for sustained U.S. leadership in a collective response that upholds a regional order respectful of sovereignty and independence.

Paired with China’s more assertive territorial ambitions and deteriorating bilateral ties with each member of the Quad, these concerns have begun to prompt a backlash that is pushing the Indo-Pacific democracies toward a more collective and coherent response.

In November 2017, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States revived the highly symbolic Quadrilateral Dialogue. Over the past six months, each country has expressed and escalated criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative while showing a greater willingness to veto proposed Chinese investments on national security grounds. The growing attention being paid to the rules-based order and Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be seen as yet another component of this pushback.

With globalization and economic interdependence rendering traditional Cold War-style containment policies infeasible, the Indo-Pacific democracies are better served by defining, promoting, and defending a positive conceptual framework—a regional order which promotes freedom, prosperity, transparency, and the rule of law. “That order,” says senior State Department advisor Brian Hook, “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.”

The Quad democracies have now taken the critical first steps of defining the pillars of that order, recognizing its importance and the severity of the challenges it’s facing, and reaching consensus on the need to take action in its defense. A far more difficult task lies ahead: identifying and communicating what constitutes a challenge to that order, delineating the consequences, and creating the practical mechanisms to defend it.


Jeff Smith specializes in South Asia as a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).