“Free” and “open” are fixtures of the Trump administration’s vision for the Indo-Pacific—a region that stretches from the US west coast to the west coast of India. The vision was officially unveiled by the 45th US president in November 2017 at the APEC CEO Summit, in which President Trump emphasized his administration’s priorities for the region as fair and reciprocal trade, and respect for the principles of rule of law, individual rights, and freedom of navigation and overflight, including open shipping lanes. He also described how the Indo-Pacific region “has emerged—and it is still emerging—as a beautiful constellation of nations, each its own bright star, satellites to none—and each one, a people, a culture, a way of life, and a home.”
Since the major pronouncement, allies, partners, competitors, and adversaries alike have questioned what substantive form this American vision will take. Over the course of the past year, what began as a set of amorphous concepts has evolved into something more tangible, with strategies to support the realization of objectives defined by those key concepts. In December 18, 2017, the White House released its long-awaited National Security Strategy (NSS), which defined the challenges and highlighted the principles of how it will actualize a “free” and “open” Indo-Pacific region. This was quickly followed by the Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy.
In unprecedented fashion, Taiwan was explicitly mentioned in the “military and security” section on “priority actions” for the Indo-Pacific region within the NSS. In June 2018, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Secretary Mattis reinforced the Administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy by underscoring that it was a positive, affirmative, and inclusive strategy to promote international norms and law, protect their exclusive economic zones, make decisions without undue pressure and coercion. It is notable that Taiwan was a feature in his speech:
The Department of Defense remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan to provide the defense articles and services necessary to maintain sufficient self-defense consistent with our obligation set out in our Taiwan Relations Act. We oppose all unilateral efforts to alter the status quo, and will continue to insist any resolution of differences accord with the will of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
In July, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randy Schriver explicitly affirmed that Taiwan is an important partner and can make a valuable contribution to the Indo-Pacific region. For instance, the Assistant Secretary highlighted how Taiwan is a reliable partner in enforcing United Nations sanctions against North Korea.
Yet as the President’s APEC speech indicated, “free” and “open” do not mean that the strategy is focused on defense alone. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in July, the Indo-Pacific region is a critical engine for growth, with Asian economies projected to create 50 percent of global GDP in the coming decades. In perhaps the most comprehensive speech of what are underpinning the “free” and “open” Indo-Pacific strategy, Secretary Pompeo stated:
- When we say “free” Indo-Pacific, it means we all want all nations, every nation, to be able to protect their sovereignty from coercion by other countries. At the national level, “free” means good governance and the assurance that citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights and liberties.
- When we say “open” in the Indo-Pacific, it means we want all nations to enjoy open access to seas and airways. We want the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes. This is key for international peace and for each country’s attainment of its own national aims.
- Economically, “open” means fair and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, transparent agreements between nations, and improved connectivity to drive regional ties – because these are the paths for sustainable growth in the region.
It is worth noting that Secretary Pompeo spotlighted Taiwan in the context as a success story of US economic engagement in the region: “In Taiwan, economic development went hand-in-hand with creating an open, democratic society that blossomed into a high-tech powerhouse.” Specifically, American Institute of Taiwan Director Brent Christensen indicated that the United States and Taiwan can become closer partners in terms of infrastructure, energy and the digital economy under the economic pillars of the US Indo-Pacific strategy.
The US “free” and “open” Indo-Pacific strategy is also not operating in a geopolitical vacuum. Indeed, the strategy appears designed to overlap with the strategies of US allies and partners in the region. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in May, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Alex Wong stated it best when he highlighted:
As the United States pursues our Indo-Pacific strategy, it’s important to note that a number of our partners are pursuing similar strategies. If you look at India’s Act East policy, at South Korea’s New Southern policy, at Japan’s Free & Open IndoPacific Strategy, at Taiwan’s New Southbound policy, and at Australia’s Foreign Policy Whitepaper, they are all seeking to expand ties throughout the Indo-Pacific and in particular with the nations of Southeast Asia and ASEAN. As these strategies overlap with ours, they’ll form a strong free and open fabric that knits the region together, preserves sovereignty, and promotes prosperity. This is a vision the United States has long advanced in the Indo-Pacific, and one we believe will continue to reap benefits in terms of stability and prosperity.
Taiwan clearly wants to be an active participant in knitting that “strong free and open fabric.” In the opening speech before GTI’s 2018 annual symposium: Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu stated:
As the Trump administration carries out its strategy for Asia, Taiwan stands an ideal partner for like-minded countries in the pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific. As Secretary Pompeo rightly pointed out, Taiwan’s economic development went hand-in-hand with creating an open and democratic society that blossomed into a high-tech powerhouse. We have much to offer to the Indo-Pacific region, in terms of trade, investment and expertise. We also have much to share in terms of capacity-building for democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society. We are deeply committed to a robust, whole-of-government approach to a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, and we stand ready to work with like-minded countries to advance this common goal through our New Southbound Policy and beyond.
It is clear that the United States values the role that Taiwan can play in the Indo-Pacific. The questions now are how to operationalize that role and what are the challenges ahead? What role, if any, can Congress play and what do regional players like those of the ‘Quad’ with each their own visions of the “free” and “open” Indo-Pacific see as Taiwan’s role? Perhaps most importantly, what is Taiwan’s vision for a “free” and “open” Indo-Pacific? (For more discussion on these issues, please refer to Panel One of GTI’s 2018 symposium on “Reassuring and Reinforcing US-Taiwan Relations.”)
The main point: Over the course of the past year, the Trump Administration’s vision for a “free” and “open” Indo-Pacific has evolved from a concept to a policy supported by strategies. Taiwan shares that vision. The questions now for Taipei and Washington should be how to operationalize Taiwan’s role through the complementary efforts of its New Southbound Policy.