For Lack of a Strategy: The Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Since early 2018, the Trump administration has been assuring experts and officials at home and abroad that a public report explaining its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy was forthcoming. But the State Department’s newly released report, A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision, is not that. Instead it leaves the strategy, at best, implied but never described.
President Donald Trump first declared this new strategic vision during a speech at the November 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Vietnam. It had been previewed a month earlier in remarks by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the U.S.-India relationship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In the months following Trump’s announcement, then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis gave speeches on the subject that listed the administration’s goals in the region. The lists varied slightly, but consistently included three themes: providing countries with alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative; ensuring freedom of the seas in the Indo-Pacific; and pursuing “free, fair, and reciprocal trade.” Two years later, there is still no public guidance on how the new vision will accomplish those goals. And the State Department’s new report suggests the administration isn’t entirely sure.
The report makes clear in its introduction that it is not a strategy document, but rather an “implementation update on our Indo-Pacific strategy.” This is in contrast to the more clearly defined Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which was released on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Summit in Singapore in May. Those expecting the new report to be the whole-of-government complement to that defense strategy will be disappointed. Instead the new State Department report, which was released on Nov. 3 to coincide with the annual ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Bangkok, is mostly a factsheet on recent U.S. government engagements with Indo-Pacific states. Aside from the higher production value, it is similar to the factsheets the State Department releases every year ahead of the ASEAN meetings. In many sections of the report, like those on human rights and people-to-people exchanges, there is little effort to tie those engagements to a broader vision.
The report’s foremost contribution is that it finally codifies the major goals of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision:
- Respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations;
- Peaceful resolution of disputes;
- Free, fair, and reciprocal trade based on open investment, transparent agreements, and connectivity; and
- Adherence to international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight.
These four points are overlapping and somewhat vague, but they generally conform to the priorities laid out by McMaster, Mattis, and others in late 2017 and early 2018. In other words, the strategy is about competing with the Belt and Road Initiative, pushing back in the South China Sea, and negotiating or renegotiating bilateral trade deals. But the report’s attention to each of these is notably uneven.
The first substantive section is on multilateral engagement, declaring ASEAN “central” to a strong, rules-based architecture. This is a response to earlier concerns from Southeast Asian states about where they fit into the strategy and serves as an endorsement of ASEAN’s own Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, released in June. A focus on regional architecture makes a lot of sense given the stated priorities of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and it should have been well received when the report launched alongside the ASEAN and East Asia Summits. But actions speak louder than words, and the administration’s decision to send the lowest-level delegation by any state ever to attend the East Asia Summit broadcasted that ASEAN isn’t a high priority.
Southeast Asian leaders are aware of the political storm in Washington and of President Trump’s unpredictability at international forums. They would have been content had Vice President Mike Pence attended the summits as he did the previous year. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have been received with less enthusiasm but seen as an acceptable stand-in given past precedents. Anybody else was a snub. That ASEAN signaled its displeasure by sending just three of the 10 heads of state to meet with National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien at the annual U.S.-ASEAN Summit was understandable. That the national security adviser then publicly accused them of trying to embarrass President Trump was not. And the administration provoked further irritation by inviting all the Southeast Asian heads of state to make a trip to the United States on short notice (in the first quarter of 2020) as a substitute for the U.S. failure to show up to what the new report claims is the “backbone of regional political and security discussions.”
Setting aside its botched rollout, the report is a mixed bag when it comes to the core components of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. By far the most strategic, and the largest, section of the report deals with the United States’ efforts to give partner nations an alternative to Chinese investments. The administration has put in considerable effort on this front, including the passage of new legislation to establish an International Development Finance Corporation, and the recent announcement of the Blue Dot Network to certify high-quality infrastructure projects in cooperation with Australia and Japan. This section of the State Department report is also the only place where it attempts to define strategy, explaining how these and future projects are expected to help promote transparent, non-coercive, high-quality infrastructure investments in the region. Whether the strategy will work is an open question, but there is clearly an attempt to connect ends, ways, and means.
There is no equivalent attempt to define strategy on the South China Sea or maritime freedoms more broadly. The report follows other recent U.S. government pronouncements, including the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, in favoring the terms “freedom of the seas” and “freedom of navigation and other lawful uses of the seas” rather than just “freedom of navigation.” This is meant to signal that Washington takes Beijing’s interference with its neighbors’ maritime rights as seriously as it does threats to naval or commercial navigation in the South China Sea. The very brief discussion of the South China Sea also includes the strongest language yet blasting China’s “unfounded, unlawful, and unreasonable” claims and calls out its recent interference in Vietnam’s offshore oil and gas operations. But there is no indication of a strategy to connect that rhetoric with effective policies. The report briefly details maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asian claimants, which remains necessary but far from sufficient for the administration’s stated goals.
The third plank of the strategy — “free, fair, and reciprocal trade” — remains the most problematic. The State Department likely recognizes that focusing too much on this issue alienates partners and undermines the administration’s other goals. So the report checks a political box by using the phrase four times while leaving it ill-defined. The brief section on trade hails the recently concluded U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement and the renegotiation of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement but is otherwise noticeably thin. It makes no effort to describe a coherent regional trade strategy or even define strategic goals.
In most ways, the State Department’s report closely reflects the “strategy” in practice. It promotes a set of three cardinal interests but provides strategic direction on only one: creating alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It continues to strengthen U.S. talking points on the South China Sea but seems unsure how to make good on that rhetoric. And while insisting that partners and institutions are vital to success, it is hobbled by alienating trade policies and a lack of commitment to regional architecture. It remains, in other words, a set of aspirations for which there is still no discernible overarching strategy.
Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He oversees research on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, with a particular focus on the South China Sea disputes, democratization in Southeast Asia, and Asian multilateralism.