Bosphorus Center for Asian Studies


Free and Open Indo Pasific: A New Regional Approach and A New Initiative of Networkization?

Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Initiative is a strategic policy which has a ultimate purpose of linking/combining two oceans (Indian and Pacific Oceans) and two continents (Asia and Africa) as a humanitarian and commercial network is being leading by United States of America (USA) and Japan and officially unveiled in 2016.  While USA and Japan who are amongst of the major actors of Indo-Pacific Region call this strategic approach as “networking” in their foreign policies, “networkization (网络话)” is being used by People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s academic circles and both those terms refer to an approach which aims to link each Indo-Pacific country with each other also with USA within a commercial and security network. This strategic approach is being compared with Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was announced by PRC’s President Xi Jinxing in 2013, and both initiative is being considered in conflict of target not only for Indian Ocean Region (IOR) but also to set a commercial network for the countries of the region. However, some academic and political circles of the stakeholder – USA, Japan, India, Australia- countries criticize FOIP strategy for being too late to counterbalance PRC with such a project which remains an amorphous concept and has been elucidated limited practical implication in this strategically key Indian Ocean environ. This analysis will attempt to look these aforementioned initiatives out of three major actors; PRC, USA, India and will conclude how they approach to IOR and those initiatives.

Before all else, the meaning and scope of Indo-Pacific term needs to be mentioned. The use of the term of Indo-Pacific dates back to colonial expansion period of South and East Asia by Western countries and the term was used to look/evaluate Pacific Region through IOR by giving India a central position. IOR encompasses Southeast Asia and Oceania, South Asia, East and Sub-Saharan Africa, Red Sea and African Horn, Middle East and the Gulf. This huge IOR; encloses half of the BRI and comprises of the Silk Road’s marine route. With BRI, China strives for the historical Silk Road to get back into circulation in world trade system.  Likewise, USA published the new “National Security Strategy” on December 2017 and replaced the secular trend of “Asia-Pacific” term with a strategic “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” term in this report and updated the Pacific Command to “Indo-Pacific Command” which now became one of the three USA Areas of Operational Responsibility (AORs) on IOR. Those strategic policy shifts indicates how IOR in general Indo-Pacific in particular carries weight for USA. For India who focusses on addressing her economic growth initiated Security and Growth for all the Region policy framework which is a combination of “Act/Look East and the Think West” policies.

On Japan’s part who initiates the FOIP with USA, the term of Indo-Pacific was unveiled by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on August, 2007 in a speech he delivered at the Indian Parliament. The speech to laid bare Japan’s vision which reminded Japan’s conventional “Broader Asia (拡大アシア) approach to build a region on common values such as freedom, democracy and human rights. Indo-Pacific term replaced with Asia-Pacific term which is being used in official documents relating political/strategic approaches of Japan. That change of approach is concurrent with USA as a strategic move and also is the essence of the FOIP.

If to review the FOIP Strategy and the statements of USA, Japan political circles in detail, one can find a particular emphasis on “free and open” approach towards this marine environ. There are, as well, some studies and statements as a reply to these “free and open” approach and stress that, why the words of “free and open” applied to the IOR which have been –as all sea routes- free and open by laws (Freedom of Navigation) and accepted by all parties. Then why the emphasis on free and open is needed now? To answer this question there is a need to investigate the relation of both USA and PRC’s with the seas. USA has a fundamental approach named “Command of the Sea” which means to rule/hold domination over all seas as a political and theoretical understanding of her national security. So “Command of the Sea” is the essence of the American National Security. “Command of the Sea” principle secures national security and trade by maritime reign.

When to analyze PRC’s side, one can conclude that China’s dependence on oil and overseas trade can offer the reason why PRC puts a high priority to develop BRI project on IOR. But this analysis wants to highlight that the main reason for the competition over IOR is to dominate historical trade routes/web for who reigns the IOR trade can be the most powerful actor of the region and can escalate to the global power status. Because USA is well aware of what lead the historical shift of Western powers to dominate the Indo-Pacific Region in 19th century. So PRC acknowledges as central state of East Asia and witnesser of colonial expansion period how regional order changed after Britain and USA had started to lead the trade compare to only meditate in between region before. If, China, can escalate her own status from a partner/participator who trades in the region to an actor who determines the rules of the game – as Britain and USA did before- can have a chance to be the center of the world economic system. That, for most of the actors in the region -USA, Japan, India etc.- is not something to place at risk. And USA is being criticized because of the FOIP is initiated to only contain PRC. USA wants and does containment towards PRC because the aforementioned IOR was the marine route of the historical Silk Road as a complementary and supplementary part and those complementary territorial and marine trade routes together was the source of the wealth of the region and keep the region as the center of the world economic system till the 19th century. To control the territorial part of the Silk Road is not something to be achievable for any single actor. But “the dual operating marine/territorial network” which made the region wealthy can be intervened only by the marine part. For this reason the true meaning of the “free and open” approach is an Indo-Pacific free from any actor who competes for reign. To put this another way, to keep the status in quo in the Indo-Pacific.

In conclusion, the Indian Ocean Region which next to the North East Asia starts with South East Asia and extending to Europe was a huge market that was connected and operated in a network structure. China was the manufacture base of this huge market. First Britain then USA started to rule this market with the decline of the region in the 19th century. But recently PRC, made a strong comeback with BRI to rule this huge market again. For this reason on the marine part of the Silk Road, PRC started to build “Strategic Strong Points” between first military base in Djibouti (2017) and artificial islands of South China Sea to build a network that connects all important cities, ports and islands of the IOR. Those strategic strong points encompass all the marine route of the Silk Road. On the other side, USA struggles to strengthen its decreasing power with FOIP strategy which targets the most achievable part of the network market/Silk Road. But, PRC with the advantage of her historical centrality of the region and increasing power is far ahead of being counterbalanced by USA and projects such as FOIP. For these initiatives, there is one key actor: India. And India who is in FOIP initiative was the strongest and wealthiest actor after China in that historical system and a complementary link of the network market is an important country for BRI to succeed. For the present, PRC sides with Pakistan that is the linking part of the marine and territorial components of the BRI but PRC cannot ignore and escape to cooperate with India for BRI to reach its full potential.

BAAM Guest Author