With the global geopolitical center of gravity shifting toward Asia, a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific order is more important than ever, including for the US’ own global standing. So it was good news when, two years ago, US President Donald Trump began touting a vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, characterized by unimpeded trade flows, freedom of navigation, and respect for the rule of law, national sovereignty and existing frontiers.
Yet, far from realizing this vision, the US has allowed Chinese expansionism in Asia to continue virtually unimpeded. This failure could not be more consequential.
As with former US president Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, the Trump administration’s concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific has not been translated into a clear policy approach with any real strategic heft.
On the contrary, the US has continued to stand by while China has broken rules and conventions to expand its control over strategic territories, especially the South China Sea, where it has built and militarized artificial islands.
China has redrawn the geopolitical map in that critical maritime trade corridor without incurring any international costs.
To be sure, the US has often expressed concern about China’s activities, including its ongoing interference in Vietnam’s oil and gas activities within that country’s own exclusive economic zone. More concretely, the US has stepped up its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and engaged with the region’s three largest democracies — Australia, India and Japan — to hold “quadrilateral consultations” on achieving a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.
Although the group, known as the Quad, has no intention of forming a military grouping, it offers a promising platform for strategic maritime cooperation and coordination, especially now that its consultations have been elevated to the foreign minister level.
Yet there is no guarantee that the Quad will fulfill that promise. While the grouping has defined vague objectives — such as ensuring, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has put it, that “China retains only its proper place in the world” — it has offered little indication of how it plans to get there.
The US’ wider Indo-Pacific strategy has the same problem. The Trump administration wants to build a rules-based and democracy-led regional order, but seems to have no idea how.
Instead of trying to figure that out, it has placed strategic issues on the back burner — for example, it downgraded its participation in the recent Asia-Pacific summits in Bangkok — and focused on bilateral trade deals.
Not surprisingly, this approach has done nothing to curb China’s territorial revisionism, let alone other damaging Chinese policies, including its appalling violations of the human rights of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
The Chinese government has reportedly detained more than 1 million Muslims, mostly Uighurs, in so-called re-education camps — the largest mass incarceration on religious grounds since World War II.
Although a bipartisan US commission last year recommended sanctions over these internment camps, the Trump administration only recently imposed export and visa restrictions on camp-linked entities and officials, respectively.
China expressed anger at the decision, insisting that its actions in Xinjiang are intended to “eradicate the breeding soil of extremism and terrorism,” but it is unlikely to be deterred by the relatively restrained US measures.