Let’s Keep It the “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific
The Biden administration should reaffirm America's commitment to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific—rather than embracing China’s vision of a “secure and prosperous” region—and work closely with Japan to moderate China’s expansionist ambitions. This article was originally published in The Hill on December 24, 2020.
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Any power transition produces policy casualties. In the United States, this might be particularly true as an incoming administration often differentiates itself from the incumbent by quickly announcing new policies and the abandonment of old ones. This is easier to do regarding domestic policy than foreign policy, where some continuity must be secured, even if serious disagreements exist between the incoming and outgoing administrations. Despite the tendency for administrations to make smaller changes in the realm of foreign policy, it seems that one casualty of the Biden administration will be the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” The administration should learn more about the genealogy of this policy and reassert its commitment to the “free and open” part of the idea.
The phrase “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) originates from the administration of Japan’s former prime minister, Shinzo Abe. In response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy that reflects China’s expansionist ambitions, Abe and his government weaved together some ideas from prior Liberal Democratic Party governments and labeled them the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy in 2016.
With an emphasis on coalition-building to check and balance China’s influence, this strategy had strong security undertones, which made Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries nervous. Fully aware of the need to get ASEAN countries on board, the Abe government softened the edges of the strategy by renaming it a “vision,” shifting away from the emphasis on security components and offering a more friendly tone to the Belt and Road Initiative. Backed up by Japan’s supportive engagement with Belt and Road activities, this softer version became a hit in Southeast Asia, with various countries claiming authorship for it—and even China did not register a strong objection to it.
The 2018 FOIP vision has three pillars: promotion of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and free trade; economic prosperity, and peace and stability. The first pillar is particularly important, as it distinguishes FOIP from China’s competing strategy.
Abe promoted FOIP not only in Asia but also in the U.S. Leveraging the warm personal relationship with his American counterpart, Abe tried to sell the strategy to the Trump administration as an effective way to moderate if not fully counter Belt and Road. Trump’s foreign policy team adopted this concept, using it to slow China’s expansion in the Pacific, Asia and even East Africa. Eventually, the U.S. government began using the FOIP language frequently and placed it at the center of its anti-China foreign policy.
As the Biden administration takes over, it is understandable that its experienced foreign policy team, with a focus on returning to multilateral engagements and moderating anti-China rhetoric, would hesitate to quickly adopt FOIP, which may have acquired strong anti-China connotations in American foreign policy circles. In line with this, President-elect Biden so far has preferred the phrase “a secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region“ instead. This has deepened existing concerns in Asia, particularly in Japan, that Biden will be soft on China.
Correspondingly, Japan’s Suga administration, which came to power in mid-September, has faced criticism that it is softer on China than the Abe administration. This concern came to the fore in November, as the Suga administration routinely started using the language “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” Another precipitating event was a recent press conference in which Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi did not immediately counter Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s prickly comments about the Senkaku islands.
Foreign policy experts, led by Yuichi Hosoya at Keio University, have argued vigorously that this language change signals a weaker commitment to the core principles of FOIP. If “free and open” is replaced by “secure and prosperous,” they contend, the whole vision becomes meaningless—and this shift will be remembered as a moment when Japan abandoned its commitment to the international order, undergirded by democracy and freedom, in favor of China’s vision of a “secure and prosperous” region that prioritizes development and stability.
Realizing the potential impact of this shift, the Suga administration quickly backtracked and resumed using “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” FOIP is back in Japan, which signals Japan’s continuing resolve to promote the international liberal order.
The Biden administration also should consider readopting “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” It’s understandable that Biden would want to move away from a strategic frame used by the Trump administration. There are certainly many of President Trump’s phrases that the Biden administration should drop, such as “America First” and “China virus.” But FOIP was not a vision created by anyone in the Trump administration. It was launched by Japan’s Abe administration and, after some modification, accepted by many Asian countries, arguably even by China.
Biden’s foreign policy likely will place greater emphasis on human rights and democracy than did Trump’s. Vis-à-vis China, this would mean that the U.S. will more vocally criticize human rights violations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and elsewhere, and that trade negotiations will proceed with more civility. Given this, it would be inconsistent for the Biden administration to replace “free and open” with “secure and prosperous” in talking about the Indo-Pacific region.
While there is some ambiguity about the concrete policies that accompany the admittedly underspecified FOIP vision, the Biden foreign policy team would be wise to readopt FOIP, bearing in mind an important fact: It was not Trump’s idea. If the next U.S. administration drops “free and open,” it will send the wrong message to the world, placing undue weight on Japan’s shoulders as the only major torch-bearer for liberal values in the region, and potentially straining the U.S.-Japan security relationship that must be in lockstep to moderate China’s ambitions.