Mind the Gap: National Views of The Free and Open Indo-Pacific
When the eighth iteration of the Young Strategists Forum (YSF) took place in January 2018, the concept of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) was uppermost in the mind of virtually every policymaker, diplomat, and official in Tokyo. At the same time, the term was then still little more than a catchphrase, a geographical framing originally articulated by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016 that had taken root in the U.S. policy lexicon after it was adopted by the administration of President Donald Trump, during a speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in October 2017.
As in previous years, the eighth YSF began with a seminar and discussion of the security dynamics in Asia, with a particular focus on the U.S.-Chinese relationship. This was followed by a grand strategy simulation exercise in which participants were divided into country teams and asked to specify a set of national objectives and to devise a strategy for attaining them over a 20-year time period. The teams were then asked to make decisions allocating resources across military, economic, and diplomatic policy tools, and to respond to a sequence of complex regional crises. The key lesson from the exercise was that, in an era of intensifying strategic competition with China and a perceived relative decline in U.S. power, the United States needed to be prepared to seize the initiative if it is to achieve its long-term objectives. Participants observed that, instead of simply managing crises and attempting to restore the status quo as quickly as possible, Washington needed to exploit the opportunities provided by crises to solidify its alliances and win support from other potential partners.
"In an era of intensifying strategic competition with China and a perceived relative decline in U.S. power, the United States needs to be prepared to seize the initiative if it is to achieve its long-term objectives.”
Given the lessons learned during the week in Tokyo, it is no surprise that the actualization of the free and open Indo-Pacific was a recurring theme in the contributions by participants for the annual YSF publication. Compiled in this report, these present a wide range of views of the FOIP concept, examining its diplomatic, economic, and security dimensions. The purpose of this report is to highlight potentially differing visions and variations in understanding of the FOIP, as well as identifying areas for possible increased cooperation.
In addition to the views of several regional actors, the report includes perspectives from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. While some criticized the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” as a strategy that might cause the United States to turn away from Europe, the FOIP is in part clearly intended to deepen Europe’s presence in, and engagement with, the region. Transatlantic perceptions of what is at stake in Asia have also converged markedly over the past decade. Reading the EU’s 2018 connectivity strategy and its China strategic outlook paper released in March 2019, it is clear that European governments are increasingly concerned about Beijing’s strategic approach and economic aspirations, and not only in its immediate neighborhood but in Europe as well. Europeans may not yet be ready to follow the United States’ lead in labeling China a strategic competitor, but EU planners now openly identify it as a “systemic rival.”
What follows is not a comprehensive summary of the report’s chapters, but a highlighting of some of the key insights they provide.
Photo credit: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Barker / U.S. Department of Defense