Both a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative and an arena for economic co-operation, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy presents a versatile tool for democracies to grow together in the region, Simi Mehta writes.
In his address to Indian Parliament in 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocated for the ‘confluence’ of the Pacific Ocean to the edge of the Indian Ocean to form an ‘arc of freedom and prosperity’.
Reiterating this idea in 2016, Abe floated the concept of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP). This was viewed as the beginning of an intensified Japanese foreign policy and of its proactive involvement in global affairs.
By establishing trans-border connectivity corridors, FOIP is designed to connect the Asian and African continents, as well as the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
The aim is to maintain and strengthen a rules-based and open maritime order to prevent instability and conflict, specifically avoiding any one country’s dominance in the maritime domain of the Indo-Pacific region.
The US has affirmed the FOIP policy. According to US President Donald Trump, the FOIP strategy is important because the Indo-Pacific region is of economic and strategic significance for the US to invest in.
The mutual interest between Japan and the US in pushing for a FOIP strategy was imminent from their meeting in November last year, when the two sides committed to the continuation of joint efforts to develop energy, infrastructure, and digital connectivity in the region.
Treaty allies and strategic partners in Southeast Asia – the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia – have also been strengthening their ties with other US allies and partners in the region, especially with Japan, Australia, and India.
The overall focus of FOIP is on fostering maritime capacity-building and funding regional interconnectivity projects like the East-West Economic Corridor and the Maritime ASEAN Economic Corridor.
With the aim to forge broad public support for the FOIP strategy, both countries have sought to facilitate nuclear energy cooperation, high-standard investment in projects to supply liquefied natural gas (LNG), and build LNG infrastructure.
The idea of promoting infrastructure investment, training programs, and international best practices for public procurement in the Indo-Pacific region is rooted in principles of transparency, market-based financing, open infrastructure, and debt sustainability.
It was also in the discussion of the FOIP policy that the US agreed on the Japanese concept of the Diamond Strategic Alliance structure – a strategic coalition of Australia, India, Japan and the US – and for the consequent revival of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad.
This is opposed to China’s continued militarisation of, and its attempts to control, strategic waterways throughout the region, namely the South China Sea.
In a significant policy speech in July 2018 and an indirect reference to China, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned that the American goal in the Indo-Pacific is “partnership, not domination,” and that the US would oppose any country that would seek to establish such domination.
The common value of democracy that binds the Quad – US, Australia, Japan, and India – is also reflected in their high-level linkages and intelligence-sharing. Experts like Derek Grossman from the RAND Corporation and Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain opine that the FOIP and the Quad are more of a counter-balancing strategy with respect to China.
FOIP has been presented as being inclusive and open to China, yet its promotion of ‘free and open’ policies rhetorically sideline the economic giant.
It is understood that FOIP prepares countries to deal with a fast-changing global and regional order as well as the growing Chinese footprint in the region including its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
While the FOIP and Quad are yet to establish a formal framework for cooperation, for Washington it is a coherent geopolitical tool for balancing against China.
According to the Vice-President of the US, Mike Pence, the US wouldn’t offer a ‘constricting belt’ and a ‘one-way road’. The choice of such words demonstrates a growing unease towards the BRI in US foreign policy corridors, especially when America’s expansive geopolitical influence stands at odds with increasing Chinese economic prowess.
Overall, FOIP has the potential to create a single strategic system – grounded on values of peace and stability and based on open, transparent, and economically sustainable principles with the overall aim of empowerment for developing countries. If managed well, FOIP could be the liberal alternative to the BRI.
However, this potential is not without its shortcomings.
India is seen to be the ‘weak pillar’ in FOIP as well as in the Quad. Apprehensive about provoking a backlash in China amid the prevailing lack of warmth in Sino-Indian relations, India’s official position is that it would not isolate any country, and aims to create an ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific.
As a result, New Delhi seeks to regard the Quad as one of many multilateral arrangements in the Indo-Pacific region, and distance itself from supporting it as a highly consequential one.
If the propagators of the FOIP strategy can leverage their relationships and reconcile their priorities under the broad umbrella of stated objectives, the FOIP has serious potential.
Progress towards a concert of democracies in the region would have wide-reaching effects. The nature and scope of multilateral relations in the Indo-Pacific would be expanded and the vision of a sustainable, free, open, rules-based, prosperous, and connected Indo-Pacific could be realised to the benefit of all involved.