Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must have been elated when U.S. President Donald Trump chose Tokyo for his “first visit to the Indo-Pacific region” during his Asia tour last November. After all, the term “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” was a broad Asia strategy that Abe introduced in 2016 — an idea he has built on since his first tenure as prime minister in 2007.
Abe has been selling the strategic idea to Washington since the early days of the Trump administration. To Abe’s pleasure, Trump called Vietnam the “heart of the Indo-Pacific” when he arrived in Danang last November for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, seeming to embrace an Asia strategy that Abe conceptualized.
Trump, who seeks to dismantle his predecessor’s policies — ranging from foreign policy to health care, climate change, immigration and trade — is also trying to reframe America’s Asia policy.
In Asia, Trump has replaced the Obama administration’s “rebalance” with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific as the core U.S. strategy for the region. The U.S. National Security Strategy, released last December, identifies the Indo-Pacific as a major region that requires a specific strategy situated in the regional context, namely, China’s economic, military and diplomatic challenges.
The backdrop of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy as defined by the Trump administration is the firm understanding that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The NSS report states that the U.S. must protect its interest in the region from Chinese dominance, stretching from the western shores of the United States to the west coast of India, which represents “the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world.”
The core component of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy is the Quad of nations — the U.S. and its major allies in Asia — Japan, India and Australia.
The Quad shares the fundamental political, economic and social values of the free and open world, such as the rule of law, democracy, free markets, human rights and voluntary participation in multilateral institutions. The four nations expect to defend these fundamental values along with the ASEAN countries, which share these values but are vulnerable to China’s political, economic and military influence. By all appearances, it is a sensible strategy that the free world can rally behind.
However, the reality of the nascent strategy and the Quad is much more complicated, with varying levels of commitment among the four nations. Last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore is a case in point.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis mentioned the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy as the centerpiece of the administration and made it clear that the U.S. “cannot accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community, undermining the rules-based order.” He even changed the U.S. Pacific Command’s name to the Indo-Pacific Command. However, he was short on the specifics on how to further advance the Indo-Pacific strategy and strengthen coordination among the Quad.
Canberra is showing a similar posture. While Australia is a close ally of the U.S., its largest trading partner is China and it has no maritime or land disputes with Beijing. Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne mentioned Indo-Pacific several times but also was short on substance at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
India’s position is even more precarious. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India also recognizes the importance of the Indo-Pacific, he emphasized inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness in Singapore. “India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members,” he said. Rather, Modi is seeking to cultivate closer ties with China. He said connectivity with neighboring nations was his top priority at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Quingdao following the Shangri La Dialogue.
For sure, India and Australia have their own interests when it comes to dealing with China. But the reality is that both New Delhi and Canberra are reluctant to fully engage Beijing as a true partner. India has deep-seated suspicions of China’s motives. Australia also is increasingly feeling uneasy about China’s increasing influence in its domestic politics, as well as its military buildup in the region — as close as Vanuatu, which is less than 2,400 km from its northeastern coast.
Most worrisome is that Trump himself doesn’t seem to fully embrace the Indo-Pacific strategy. Despite the fact that it is broadly supported by the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, he has yet to invest political capital to advance the strategy beyond being a catchphrase. Worse, his criticism of U.S. allies as “free-riders” of American security and “unfair” trade partners does not inspire confidence among allies.
What can Japan do?
First, in spite of the differences, Japan should continue to advocate and advance the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which represents a moral high ground on Japan’s part in the eyes of the international community.
Tokyo has long been viewed as docile and reactive, but the strategy presents Japan an opportunity to play a leadership role in the region, much like it did when it concluded the TPP 11 after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact. Simply put, Japan can show it has the ability to lead.
Second, Tokyo should show patience with Washington to promote further unity of the Quad. Trump himself may not be enthusiastic in advancing the strategy; far worse, he could take America down a different path.
But a strong majority of Congress and the policy community share support of the principles of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, as well as concerns toward China’s aggressive behavior. The U.S.-Japan security alliance remains the cornerstone of national security in Asia, and there are no alternatives in the foreseeable future.
Third, Japan should make maximum efforts to connect ASEAN nations with the Quad under the framework of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Japan would do well to engage security institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus. While the degree of involvement with China varies by country, ASEAN as a whole has not succumbed to China’s economic, military and diplomatic power.
ASEAN states are cognizant of their geopolitical and geo-economic situation. There cannot be a Free and Open Indo-Pacific without the participation of ASEAN countries. Japan should also invite like-minded European countries to join in the strategy.
Finally, Japan needs to take a nuanced approach. There are varying strategic visions within the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
It is important to note that China is not an adversary in the sense that the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. The Quad and ASEAN nations have multilayered relationships with China, each reflecting their own interests. In the real world, cooperation and competition are intertwined.
The Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy must be regionwide in scope and based on shared values to respond effectively to the challenges of China. To succeed, it must not be an overtly hostile strategy aimed at containing China.
Satohiro Akimoto is president and founder of Washington Insights, a geopolitical risk analysis and consulting firm. Previously he was senior vice president and general manager at Mitsubishi Corp.’s Washington office.