US declarations in favour of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” repeatedly emphasize the importance of free and reciprocal trade, freedom of navigation, and the rule of law. They also remind the international community that the US and its allies are committed to engaging with the broad Indo-Pacific region. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy effectively acts as an alternative to China’s Belt & Road Initiative through various rhetorical mechanisms. Indeed, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy relies on state-led strategic narratives as a source of power.
But what is a strategic narrative? Narratives are nothing less than stories that aim to make sense of the world, and they become strategic when states actively intervene to shape these stories to advance a national interest. In international politics, it is possible to differentiate narratives on three levels: there are system-level narratives, which claim to make sense of the international environment, as well as national narratives and issue-specific narratives. For instance, China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea are framed as historically legitimate, peaceful and defensive (the issue narrative). These claims are also symptomatic of the so-called “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” under Xi Jinping, which breaks from the “century of humiliation” (the national narrative). Although parts of the international environment –specifically the United States and Japan– may still be hostile to China’s assertions in the South China Sea, there is much to gain from China’s calls for a “community of common destiny,” which stresses the importance of international cooperation between China and the world (the international narrative). This international narrative has gained traction especially as the US declines in power and becomes increasingly isolationist. According to the same narrative, China’s economic and military ascendance is unstoppable given its continued economic growth and transition to higher value-added economic sectors; hence, smaller third parties ought to know better and avoid provocations.
Narratives such as the one listed above can simplify a complex reality into a linear story, allowing it to reach a wider audience. The most powerful strategic narratives are those that are widely believed. Powerful strategic narratives must also be supported by major policies, because when words match government action, the narratives gain more traction. Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, which has been enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party Constitution, is full of narratives: it aims to build “win-win” international relations, symbolizes the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and is proof of China’s peaceful rise. It ultimately aims to use concrete projects to beef up the idea of a “community of common destiny.”
Similarly, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy should be understood as part of a counter-narrative to China’s aggressive advancements in the East and South China Seas, and the Belt and Road Initiative. At the international level, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific pits an open, multilateral rules-based order against a China-dominated region; at the national level, the narrative highlights the democratic nature of its proponents against China’s autocracy; at the issue level, China’s moves are inherently expansionist while the opposing camp’s views are defensive.
Interestingly, the concept of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy was first raised in a speech Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made to the Indian Parliament in 2007. Both the US and Japan frequently speak on the topic of the Indo-Pacific. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision refutes the notion that the US is a declining and disengaged power. On the contrary, the Trump administration has strengthened the US military in the region. In the same vein, the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia, an earlier incarnation of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy, was meant to keep America engaged in the region and reassure regional friends about US commitments. Ultimately, the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which includes $10 billion in energy infrastructure from the Japan-U.S. Strategic Energy Partnership (JUSEP), serves as an alternative to the Belt & Road Initiative. Through it, Washington is effectively disrupting Beijing’s narrative on its irresistible ascendance to regional centrality. It is worth nothing, however, that the US emphasizes the security components of the strategy, while Japan prefers stressing the economic ones in light of their foreign policy priorities. Indeed, actual US economic contributions to Asian development are limited to stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Secondly, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific narrative presents the United States and its allies as peaceful, democratic players confronting autocratic and nefarious challengers. A clear example of this logic is demonstrated by the National Security Strategy’s stark language when it describes the international environment: “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific.” Similarly, under the Trump administration, US officials have lambasted China’s debt-trap diplomacy, called it a new imperial power, and accused Beijing of “interfering in the domestic policies and politics of the United States.” What’s the purpose of these Manichean strategic narratives? In my opinion, the White House is –with a degree of bipartisan consensus—drumming up the resolve of domestic and international audiences and preparing them for major, and potentially divisive, policy decisions aimed at China. Thus, characterizing Chinese behaviour in an exclusively negative light –such as Mike Pence’s speech at the Hudson Institute– will prompt US audiences to support sustained, yet costly, strategic competition. Conversely, recent exposes on China’s so-called “sharp power” may influence foreign countries to refrain from developing close relationships with China and Chinese businesses.
A degree of simplification of the China message is understandable, but the US and its allies would be better served by constructive language that recognizes the need to work with China in the international arena, and should avoid demonizing Beijing. After all, Southeast Asian governments do not want to make a choice between the US and China. If the narrative becomes overly adversarial, ASEAN countries may want to distance themselves from the US. Japan has appreciated these dynamics with its earlier, failed attempt at promoting an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” strategic narrative that de facto excluded China, thus prompting ASEAN countries’ unwillingness to sign up to the initiative. For these reasons, Abe has rebranded the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy into a more inclusive vision that leaves space for cooperation with the Belt and Road Initiative. Abe’s more recent four conditions for cooperation with the BRI (economic viability, transparency, openness, and fiscal sustainability) are likely meant to reassure ASEAN and the international community of Japan’s inclusiveness. While the underlying logic of great power politics remain – to the extent that Japan welcomes Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy - the United States government should learn from Tokyo how to craft a more nuanced strategic narrative.