The Trump administration is now ready to implement its ambitious free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy, wherein it wants the nations of the region to be free from coercion so that they can pursue in a sovereign manner the paths they choose, a US official said on Tuesday.
While the first year was being used to introduce the strategic concept, the rest years of the Trump administration are for formulation and implementation of the strategy, a senior State Department official said. “Free and Open” are the two strategic modifiers that the administration has decided to describe its strategy, Alex Wong Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs told reporters.
“By free we mean, first of all, the international plane. We want the nations of the Indo-Pacific to be free from coercion, that they can pursue in a sovereign manner the paths they choose in the region,” he said. “Secondly, we mean at the national level, we want the societies of the various Indo-Pacific countries to become progressively more free – free in terms of good governance, in terms of fundamental rights, in terms of transparency and anti-corruption,” he added.
“Moving on to open … We first and foremost mean open sea lines of communication and open airways. These open sea lines of communication are truly the lifeblood of the region,” Wong said.
With 50 per cent of trade going through the Indo-Pacific along the sea routes, particularly through the South China Sea, open sea lanes and open airways in the Indo-Pacific are increasingly vital and important to the world, he noted.
“Secondly, we mean more open logistics – infrastructure. There’s an infrastructure gap throughout the Indo-Pacific. What is needed throughout the region to encourage greater regional integration, encourage greater economic growth? We want to assist the region in doing infrastructure in the right way, infrastructure that truly does drive integration and raises the GDPs of the constituent economies, not weigh them down,” the State Department official said. “We also mean more open trade. Free, fair, and reciprocal trade is something the United States has supported for decades and that the Trump administration supports,” Wong said.
Acknowledging that the India Pacific Strategy seems to be similar to that of the previous administration, he asserted that this is different because as the population and the economic weight of the Indo-Pacific grows, focus of the US and its efforts in the region have to commensurately grow with it.
The use of term Indo-Pacific, as against Asia Pacific previously, by the Trump administration, he said “acknowledges the historical reality and the current day reality that South Asia and in particular, India plays a key role” in the Pacific, in East Asia and Southeast Asia. “That has been true for thousands of years and it’s true today,” Wong said.
Responding to a question, Wong stressed on the need to enforce the rules of free trade. “You have to ensure that nations cannot abuse the rules, cannot force technology transfer, cannot prize their national champions, can’t steal intellectual property. If you don’t do this, if you don’t enforce the rules of free trade, what ends up happening is that over time, the free, fair, and reciprocal trading regime is weakened, and that’s to the detriment not just of the United States’s prosperity but to the prosperity of the region and the world as a whole,” he said.
Wong said that the Indo-Pacific Strategy us not just about China. “The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy is not just about China, and this is for the very simple reason that the region is much larger than China. In the ASEAN states alone, we have 600 million people. In India, we have 1.2 billion people,” he said.
“If the US, together with our partners, can sew together and unify all the peoples of the Indo-Pacific – China included – under a vision that is free and open, that prizes free market economics, sovereignty, increasingly freer people and nations free from coercion, that’s not just to the US’ benefit, that’s to the benefit of all nations in the Indo-Pacific, China included,” he said.