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  • The Trump Administration's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Approach
  • Brian Harding (bio)

After nearly two years, the Trump administration's approach to the Indo-Pacific region has finally taken shape. Its objectives are a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific", in line with decades of U.S. policy in the region, but in a new context of outright strategic competition with China. Its means include familiar tools of U.S. engagement, with some modest improvements for the times. But in Donald Trump's America, actions often do not support stated goals and, in the case of policy in the Indo-Pacific, President Trump's personal instincts, in particular his dogmatic approach to trade, have undermined his administration's best efforts in the region.

Early Days

Over the course of two years, a series of formal speeches and documents have articulated in increasing detail the administration's Indo-Pacific approach. Throughout this period, the administration has also faced frequent criticism for the slow pace of policy formulation and in appointing key Asia policymaking officials. To understand why policy formulation has been so slow, it is important to go back to Trump's unconventional presidential campaign and presidential transition.

While all major U.S. presidential campaigns in recent memory have been supported by networks of public policy professionals helping the nominees and [End Page 61] crafting policy agendas for the event the candidate is elected, Donald Trump's presidential campaign was different. In stark contrast to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign — with an enormous team of unpaid foreign policy advisors working to develop a potential presidential agenda, including a strategy for Asia — Trump had almost no foreign policy advisors. During the 2016 Republican primary season, leading Republican foreign policy hands supported a range of candidates, but almost none signed up to support candidate Donald Trump. Instead, many leading Republican experts actively opposed Trump's candidacy.1 Furthermore, soon after the election, Trump disbanded his small presidential transition office, depleting any preparatory work that had been done.

Without a coherent foreign policy framework and with little expertise on Asia within its ranks, the early Trump administration's approach to Asia became highly reactionary, guided by a deep scepticism of China and the reality that North Korea presented an increasingly untenable threat to the U.S. homeland. In particular, the North Korea threat forced the administration to focus considerable attention on Asia in its first few months with a flurry of meetings with Asian leaders. Within months, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-In, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong all visited the United States to meet with President Trump, with North Korea and the president's focus on bilateral trade deficits dominating discussions.

2017: A Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy Emerges

While the early Trump administration's attention to Asia was primarily focused on North Korea, an ancillary result of this intensive engagement was that it quickly became clear to senior officials that the administration needed a broader Asia strategy. Trump's strong interest in taking a harder line on China, largely due to his contention that China has taken advantage of the United States economically, also drove his team to develop a broader approach in line with this objective. As the administration cast around for a broader vision distinct from Obama's "rebalance" or "pivot", it landed on the concept of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific", a vision and name which is heavily influenced by the close interaction between key senior Trump officials and their Japanese counterparts at a time when the latter were rolling out the Japanese concept of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific". Japan's interest in deepening quadrilateral cooperation including India and Australia also resonated with Trump administration officials. [End Page 62]

The administration's first major speech to rely heavily on the terminology of "Indo-Pacific" took place in October 2017 and was delivered by then secretary of state Rex Tillerson at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.2 While the speech largely focused on...


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