Promise vs. Experience: How to Fix the ‘Free & Open Indo-Pacific’


In his book The Midas Touch, President Donald Trump offers the following advice for would-be business leaders: “A brand is two words: the “Promise” you telegraph and the “Experience you deliver.” In other words, people will only understand your brand through their experience of it. It’s sound advice. Unfortunately, it’s advice that seems to have been forgotten when it comes to the administration’s new “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.

The Trump administration has been on a messaging blitz, working to explain its Indo-Pacific strategy to audiences at home and abroad.These discussions have endeavored to clarify important questions—the meaning of “free” and “open” and the rhetorical switch from “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific”—but they’ve done little to allay concerns that the strategy is little more than a conceptual bumper sticker. When it comes to the details, the conversation seems to stall. In a recent State Department briefing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong suggested that the administration is only now beginning to focus on “formulation and implementation of the strategy.” Equally concerning is the disconnect between the administration’s “free and open” narrative and many of its recent actions.

In the rush to roll out something new before the president’s November 2017 Asia trip, the administration launched its Indo-Pacific brand without doing the conceptual spadework necessary to operationalize its strategy. Regional interlocutors have been left to parse a series of confusing U.S. actions—ranging from widespread economic tariffs, wild flip-flops on North Korea strategy, and disconcerting messaging to allies on trade. In turn, the administration’s Indo-Pacific brand has become everything and nothing all at the same time.

To ensure the experience of the free and open Indo-Pacific matches its promise, the administration will need to develop a more coherent narrative, as well as the operational strategy to back it up. It could begin by addressing four of the most pressing questions surrounding its current approach.

What About the Non-Quad Squad?

One of the primary problems with the administration’s approach is that its entire strategy has become synonymous with the Quadrilateral Dialogue (the “Quad”). In high-level statements on America’s Indo-Pacific vision—then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s October 2017 India speech and the National Security Strategy—the Quad is featured as an intrinsic element of U.S. policy. And in the absence of other new policy initiatives, it has emerged as the singular piece of tangible evidence that there’s something “new” about this new strategy.

The problem with the emerging narrative around the Quad is that it takes a nascent policy initiative with laudable, but as of yet ill-defined, plans and freights it down with unrealistic expectations. While Australia, Japan, and India may be some of America’s closest allies and partners, this does not suggest unanimity in how each country defines its national interests or its foreign policy objectives. Yes, there is broad alignment on values and principles between all four countries. But on a number of key issues that will be central to operationalizing an Indo-Pacific vision—dealing with the rise of China, promoting regional trade, and managing nuclear proliferation—there remain differences between the four countries that will make it challenging to produce coordinated action.This sets the Quad up to face the same critiques that surrounded the Obama administration’s Asia rebalance: over-promising and under-delivering.

The best way to help this dialogue succeed would be to slowly walk back the hype that now surrounds it and give government experts the space to define an achievable agenda. This would allow Quad members to start with low-hanging fruit, like capacity-building coordination and perhaps an infrastructure development plan, before moving on to more politically difficult forms of cooperation. The Quad has collapsed before due to political differences, and it could happen again. The more serious problem this time around would be that the failure of a central plank of U.S. strategy would imply something far more fundamental about the viability of U.S. leadership. “As the Quad goes, so goes the free and open Indo-Pacific” is not a strategy America should be banking on.

An equally problematic element of the Quad-focused narrative is that it leaves non-Quad members looking like also-rans, questioning their role and significance within a U.S. vision for the Indo-Pacific. This is particularly troubling given that three of five U.S. treaty allies (South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines) are not included in this grouping. Notably, these are also the three alliances most in need of U.S. reassurance. The Moon administration’s pointed decision to refrain from endorsing the Indo-Pacific concept during Trump’s November visit highlights the degree to which non-Quad allies are watching the idea with wariness.

Southeast Asian allies and partners, in particular, have privately expressed concern that the current approach previews a U.S. strategy in which their countries will be either the object of quadrilateral coordination or the subject of great power competition, rather than participants and partners in their own right. Of equal concern is the fear that the Quad (which some press reports have wrongly described as the beginnings of an “Asian NATO”) may be an attempt to replace the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the center of Asia’s regional architecture. Admittedly, many of these fears are likely overstated. The administration deserves credit for efforts to keep up the pace of its engagement with Southeast Asia and ASEAN. But the president’s last-minute decision to skip the East Asia Summit in November was noticed in the region He may get a free pass for the first year, but he won’t for the next one. Without a more direct emphasis on the importance of a broader network of partners—including support for institutions like ASEAN and the Indian Ocean Rim Association down to nascent groupings like the Sulu Sea trilateral—these regional anxieties will persist.

Whither China in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific?

A related problem is that there is little to belie the impression that the current strategy is centered around containment of China. Although the National Security Strategy argues “our vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation,” it also openly argues that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” This type of language deepens the expectation in some corners that the free and open Indo-Pacific represents an emerging system of“rival blocs” that could slowly slide into a new Cold War.

To be fair, the administration’s shift toward a more assertive China strategy has been welcomed by many experts on both sides of the aisle. Butas Ely Ratner and Kurt Campbell have argued, there is a fine line between competition and confrontation. Focusing too heavily on the latter will alienate friends in the region, ultimately undermining the ability to do the former. To avoid this, the administration will need to provide some kind of counter-balance in its narrative about China.

The most effective way to do this would be to find some affirmative agenda items to bolster the claim that the United States still seeks to cooperate with China. Under the previous administration, initiatives such as the Paris Climate Agreement and military-to-military confidence-building mechanisms, among others, fulfilled this role. Thus far, other than erratic statements about the need for Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea, the Trump administration has not identified similar ideas to create cooperative space in the relationship. Such initiatives will not eliminate the tensions that define U.S.-China ties, and they’re likely to be narrow in scope, but pursuing them sends an important message about U.S. determination to prevent an enormously consequential relationship from running off the rails.

Is There an Economic Plan B?

Perhaps the most frequent question and complaint about U.S. strategy is about the absence of an economic vision that supports the administration’s free and open narrative. The region has largely come to terms with the wound the administration inflicted on itself by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Indeed, they’ve moved on pretty well. But they’re also waiting to see what Plan B looks like.

The United States has historically been the leading proponent of free commerce and open markets in the Pacific region, and support for Asian economic development has been a central element of U.S. strategy. The administration’s public narrative suggests continuity on this front, but its actions suggest anything but. It’s difficult to champion a free and open order when you’re busy erecting tariff barriers and then strong-arming friends with a list of conditions to avoid them. Or when you’re threatening to undo hard-fought trade deals with allies. Or when you’re de-legitimizing the institutions that underpin the order you’re supposedly working to preserve.

The problem is not the administration’s concerns about China’s lack of market access and mercantilist economic behavior. There is widespread agreement on many of these complaints, both at home and abroad.The problem is the means by which the administration has addressed these concerns, which has left U.S. allies and partners in the cold while doing little to explain how the region will be made any more free or open. Meanwhile, as the United States focuses on actions that will undoubtedly take an economic toll on its friends and neighbors, China continues to court the rest of the region with investment opportunities and infrastructure development. Lousy as the terms of those deals may sometimes be, as one regional colleague recently observed: “We always say we don’t want to choose between the United States and China, but right now it feels like the United States has left us with no choice at all.”

The United States cannot credibly promote a free and open economic order without providing viable alternatives to China’s mercantilist model. And these alternatives must be something other than merely arguing that the United States is the unilateral arbiter to “enforce the rules of free trade.” U.S. policy appears to have forsaken the idea of expanding the size of the pie in favor of just scraping back every crumb that can be brought back home. Whether it is focusing on U.S.-led infrastructure cooperation, expanding regional investment opportunities, or even inking new bilateral trade deals, the administration needs to find a message of positive and inclusive economic leadership that it can trumpet rather than speaking from its current insular crouch.

Whose Rules? What Principles?

This brings us to the final, and related, challenge facing the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. What does free and open really mean in practice? Jeff Smith’s recent article in War on the Rocks suggests that the administration’s Indo-Pacific conceptisan effort to take certain core tenets of the rules-based order and “unify them under one rhetorical concept.” But this rhetorical shorthand sidesteps the most necessary element of U.S. messaging, which is to describe in precise and concrete terms the rules and principles it believes support a free and open Indo-Pacific. Most countries will pay lip service to the general concept of a stable and rules-based international order, even China. The more important question is which rules matter and whether countries uphold them in practice.

The United States does itself a disservice when it glosses over the specific challenges to these rules and principles in lieu of broad language about the ubiquity of China’s threat to the rules-based order. It is far too simplistic to suggest China is contesting the entirety of the system. Rather, it is contesting individual rules and principles, and their specific interpretations, at times of its choosing. For example, the United States and China have both voiced broad agreement about the importance of freedom of navigation. They disagree quite vociferously, however, on what freedom of navigation means in practice in places like the South China Sea, and whether it applies only to commercial vessels or to military vessels as well. Similarly, the United States and China both endorse the importance of the rule of law. Yet China’s detentions of human rights lawyers and willingness to allow widespread theft of U.S. intellectual property call into question its adherence to these principles.

It is here, in contesting individual actions and debating the practical application of international norms, that the United States ought to focus its attention —not only in words, but also in deeds. U.S. rhetoric rings particularly hollow when it trumpets the values of a rules-based order and then turns a blind eye while China bullies its neighbors, such as its successful effort this past month to stop Vietnam from drilling within the nine-dash line.

The administration’s generic approach to the “rules-based order” also ignores that in some cases, America’s disagreements about particular norms and principles are not just with China; they’re with friends and partners too. In Asia, for example, the United States interprets certain elements of the UN Law of the Sea differently from partners like India or Vietnam. Similarly, the United States no longer endorses the principle of net neutrality, while India and the EU hold a very different view. If the Trump administration wants to compete with China in the realm of ideas—arguably the most important arena to be contesting—it owes its allies a more vigorous discussion about the principles it holds dear.This will also require a more inclusive, and humble, approach to discussing the rules-based order that recognizes that all Indo-Pacific nations have a place in upholding regional stability. It cannot simply be the task of the Quad or regional democracies to determine the shape of a free and open Indo-Pacific and to bear the responsibility for protecting its ideals.


There is much to commend the free and open Indo-Pacific concept. As a branding exercise, “free and open” evokes a vision of everything the United States has fought hard to preserve in the Pacific. But a brand name is only as good as the product it’s promoting and unless the administration can better explain how its strategy advances these ideals, the idea will fall flat. Unfortunately, with the chaotic ousting of Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, it is unclear whether the administration’s strategy will have a high-level champion to ensure its needed further development.

In his speech to Asia-Pacific CEOs in November, Trump stated he’d had the “honor of sharing our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific—a place where sovereign and independent nations, with diverse cultures and many different dreams, can all prosper side-by-side, and thrive in freedom and in peace.” All Indo-Pacific nations would welcome this vision too. The administration now has a chance to better explain how we get there.


Lindsey W. Ford is the Director for Political-Security Affairs and Richard Holbrooke Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute. She previously served as the Senior Adviser to the Assistant Secretary for Asia-Pacific Security Affairs in the Pentagon.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Daniel Barker