Strategic location, fast economic growth, young demography, and a politically stable environment make Southeast Asia an important region. Naturally, great powers gravitate to the region to promote their interests and forge mutually beneficial relationships. In such endeavors, a robust strategy is necessary, and deft messaging matters. After facing criticism for the incoherence of his regionwide Asia strategy (aside from a fixation with denuclearizing North Korea and trade war against China), President Donald Trump threw his support behind the notion of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” also called the FOIP. In a November 2017 speech before the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam, Trump described the FOIP as “a place where sovereign and independent nations, with diverse cultures and many different dreams, can all prosper side-by-side, and thrive in freedom and in peace.” The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) added that the FOIP provides prosperity and security for all and that the United States will strengthen its alliances and partnerships in the region to build “a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.” Rolled out during Trump’s Asia tour late last year, FOIP represents Trump’s answer for an Asia strategy that regional states had been looking for from Washington. However, for the strategy to work, seven key issues must be closely considered.

First, the United States and its partners should exert efforts to dispel perceptions that FOIP is a tool to contain or compete with China. This aspect took on greater importance after the release of the NSS and the subsequent 2018 National Defense Strategy, which highlighted major power competition as a primary security concern for the United States. If these two documents are meant to serve as doctrinal anchors for FOIP, then China and the region have reason to be concerned.

The United States must recognize the complexity that China presents for Southeast Asia. While the region welcomes FOIP as an opportunity to build maritime and air defense capacities and to push back against China’s expansive claims and activities, China has at the same time become the region’s largest trade partner and tourism source, and is a major investor, aid donor, and infrastructure partner. FOIP should, in no way, compel Southeast Asian states to choose between the United States or China as the NSS seems to suggest when it says, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” The last thing Southeast Asian states would want is to get tangled in a major power rivalry that, gone awry, could turn their homes into a battleground. Furthermore, painting the values of the “democratic Quad,” FOIP’s linchpin, in stark opposition to China is an unhealthy portrayal and may not resonate well in a region that runs the gamut from socialist and junta-led states to single and multiparty democracies.

Second, to allay Chinese suspicions of being the direct object or target of FOIP, Southeast Asia would welcome an opportunity for FOIP to engage China, instead of excluding it. FOIP can provide a platform to impress upon China the significance of navigational and overflight freedoms and observance of fair and reciprocal trade rules. However, one must note that FOIP’s “ensuring free access to common domains” rests on a U.S. interpretation of such freedoms. The United States and China have long been at odds on whether military activities are permissible within a coastal state’s exclusive economic zone absent its consent. The idea that participation in FOIP inadvertently endorses the U.S. position on the matter could be a gnawing concern for Southeast Asia. In fact, even among the Quad powers, India’s view of navigational freedoms converges more with that of China than with the United States.

Third, the United States should highlight cooperation not only with major powers and Quad members Japan, Australia, and India, but also with Southeast Asia. The region welcomes positive steps towards this, particularly when the NSS underscored that regional organizations such as ASEAN and APEC “remain centerpieces of the Indo-Pacific’s regional architecture and platforms for promoting an order based on freedom.” For FOIP to get better traction, it has to have a shared and inclusive ownership. FOIP should accord appropriate space for Southeast Asia to take part in making key decisions since the strategy will have tremendous implications for the latter’s maritime and aviation security, overall stability, and economy.  It will be ill-advised for major powers to craft and impose a strategy without regard for countries that will be directly affected by it.

Fourth, Southeast Asia desires recognition on its merits and not merely its value as a bargaining chip in great power negotiations. The region welcomes improvements in U.S.-China relations and recognizes the myriad domains in which their mutual cooperation can bring benefits for the larger community of nations. However, Southeast Asia would be concerned if such cooperation were to be premised on a quid pro quo adversely affecting Southeast Asian interests. For instance, China offering cooperation with the United States on North Korea issues in exchange for allowing Beijing a freer hand in the South China Sea would be unacceptable. Reassurances to dispel such concerns are important.

Fifth, FOIP could augment existing security structures in the region. In order for this to be feasible, the United States would need to be consistent in upholding its treaty commitments and avoid double standards, a sticking point often raised by critics in the Philippines. At a time when concerned partners are raising questions about the U.S. commitment to its postwar security alliances, it will be helpful if FOIP could reinforce U.S. resolve in unambiguously supporting them. Involving other key partners to support security structures would also be helpful. Furthermore, the ability of the alliance to evolve to address new forms of threats (including such non-traditional threats as natural disasters or terrorism) will also allow it to distance itself from its Cold War origins to confront the myriad challenges of the twenty-first century.

Sixth, the United States and its partners should address concerns about the long-term sustainability of FOIP, given U.S. domestic political distractions and possible reversals under a new president. Dispensing with rhetoric critical of past similar U.S. initiatives, such as the Asia-Pacific Rebalance, would impress upon regional states that FOIP is not a complete break from the past, but instead builds on what was been accomplished before with the hope of improving it. Fear of U.S. abandonment or retrenchment with shifting political tides will dampen regional enthusiasm towards U.S.-led strategies that could alienate partners from China.

Lastly, Southeast Asia would welcome a FOIP that is comprehensive and not simply security-oriented. A military-focused pivot must metamorphose to a more comprehensive rebalance (including regionally popular measures like the Trans-Pacific Partnership) before garnering regional appeal. This case is instructive for the United States. Southeast Asia is a vibrant place for investments, open to both private and state capital. Southeast Asia is eager to attract enough private capital for the large-scale, long-term infrastructure projects necessary to sustain its promising growth. Within the region, there are only a few countries able to finance and deliver turnkey projects, namely China, Japan and Korea. Beijing has thus far been quick to engage with less-developed regional states regardless of investment grade or political risk, and Southeast Asia appreciates China’s developmental impact. If the United States can marshal its enormous pool of private equity and pension funds, it can better participate in the region’s booming infrastructure market. To this end, Southeast Asia welcomes the NSS announcement that “the United States will modernize its development finance tools so that U.S. companies have incentives to capitalize on opportunities in developing countries… In addition, the U.S. Government must not be an obstacle to U.S. companies that want to conduct business in the developing world.”

It is still too early to forecast how the FOIP will fare. If it only serves as another facet of major power rivalry, the United States will have to overcome China’s advantages in geographic distance, economic wherewithal, and policy continuity. If it serves as a strategy to cultivate agreed-upon norms and principles applied to all parties, big or small, then it may enjoy greater support. Whichever case, the aforementioned issues merit careful consideration while they can have the greatest impact.

About Lucio Blanco Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences at Ateneo de Manila University and Contributing Editor (Reviews) for the Asian Politics & Policy Journal. His research interests include Southeast Asia in great power interaction, maritime and energy security, and China’s Belt and Road initiative.