The Case for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

Well before Trump became president, the US’s long-established China policy – a combination of engagement and deterrence sometimes called ‘congagement’ – was beginning to look threadbare.

Michael D. Swaine’s recent critique of the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy has generated a wide debate. The Wire has invited strategic affairs analysts from across the region to address some of the issues raised in the article.

There is much to dislike about Donald Trump and his handling of American domestic and foreign policy. There are also good reasons to doubt that the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) strategy reflects his preferences and will be implemented with consistency and competence.

It is hard, however, to see that FOIP will destabilise Asia, as Michael D. Swaine argues. The the region is, after all, already unstable, thanks to Beijing’s over-confident assertiveness, more than a decade of mixed messaging and half-hearted action from Washington, and 18 months of Trump’s fickle and foolish personal diplomacy. It is not obvious that FOIP will make matters markedly worse, if it does indeed have an impact on the US’s approach to the region, and there is reason to think it might make them better.

To Swaine, FOIP is unnecessarily ‘confrontational’ concerning China, representing a ‘departure’ from settled policy that may provoke a new Cold War. He thinks it embodies a ‘zero-sum’ view of international relations and a ‘cartoonish depiction’ of Beijing’s intentions. He calls for Washington take an alternative ‘untried path’: deepening economic integration and interdependence, establishing a ‘mutually beneficial balance of power’, and establishing ‘understandings’ on contentious issues, like Taiwan or North Korea.

There are two flaws in this argument. The first is that Swaine’s ‘untried path’ looks a whole lot like the well-trodden road the US has travelled since the early 1990s, which has not delivered what it promised, and has been subjected to growing criticism in Washington. The second is that Swaine’s analysis does not pay sufficient attention to the ways in which Beijing’s behaviour has changed in the decade since the global financial crisis plunged the US economy into recession, nor to the direction in which the People’s Republic is now travelling, at home and abroad.

Well before Trump became president, the US’s long-established China policy – a combination of engagement and deterrence sometimes called ‘congagement’ – was beginning to look threadbare. For a generation, Washington has aided China by allowing it access to markets and technology, according it due place and respect in international institutions, and dissuading it, though a network of alliances and partnerships, from settling disputes by force.

The idea behind congagement was simple: if China was given room to develop, it would eventually reform. Growing wealth would create a middle class and the demand for internal liberalisation. And over time, as China moved away from one-party rule and authoritarian governance, and became less likely to threaten its neighbours, the US could dial back its military deployments and even its security guarantees to its regional allies.

Whether FOIP will work is moot.

The problem is that China has grown richer, but not reformed. Instead, Beijing has been spending heavily on reinforcing Communist Party control, indoctrinating hyper-nationalism into its population and extending its military capabilities. It has ramped up the pressure on neighbouring states with which it has territorial disputes – India, Japan, and the smaller claimants around the South China Sea – and on the de facto state of Taiwan. It is flexing its economic muscle to punish those states that make choices that do not align with its preferences, or that speak out about Beijing’s abuses of human rights, interference in others’ political processes and theft of intellectual property.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, moreover, Beijing has made it increasingly clear that the party-state sees itself in ideological competition with the West. Under his direction, China is also looking both to regain, as it sees it, all the territory it thinks was taken from it during its ‘Century of Humiliation’, by force if necessary. And it is also seeking to reduce its dependence on foreign goods, especially high technology items, and make others dependent on its own, using the Belt and Road Initiative and other mechanisms.

FOIP is one response to these developments in China and on its borders, and to the failure of congagement. It runs parallel to the Trump administration’s haphazard, risky efforts to pressure Beijing to modify its trade and financial practices and respect intellectual property using tariffs and other punitive measures.

Whether FOIP will work is moot. Swaine thinks it won’t. He argues it is ‘starkly aggressive’ and will engender mistrust in Beijing. He suggests India, Japan and the other regional allies, including Australia, won’t back the strategy, as they lack will or capacity in varying measures, or are simply too economically dependent on China.

This reading of the region is, I think, outdated. It does not reflect the anxiety felt across the region at China’s recent behaviour, nor the willingness of some of these states to stand up to Beijing and bear significant costs. Japan has weathered multiple crises in bilateral relations, despite its substantial economic ties to China. Last year, Indian forces faced down the People’s Liberation Army in a border dispute that could easily have led to war. In recent months, Australia has taken the lead in exposing Beijing’s political interference activities, risking economic punishment. Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea have also all paid prices for challenging China on one issue or another.

These states have acted in these way because their stakes in the rules-based order are high. None of them savour the prospect of regional order run from Beijing, in which they are treated in the same high-handed, arbitrary, capricious, and frequently brutal way in which it treats it own citizens. They want to see the US properly engaged in Asia and committed to uphold its commitments, not distracted and unpredictable, as it has been for much longer than Trump has been in office.

Ian Hall is a professor of international relations at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.