Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yasushi Tomiyama

【#756】“Free and Open Indo-Pacific” Should Be Maintained

Yasushi Tomiyama / 2021.01.21 (Thu)

January 18, 2021


Ahead of U.S. President Joseph Biden’s inauguration on January 20, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was named to take the new post of coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council of the White House. I want Campbell, one of few Asia hands in the Biden administration, to make efforts to have the new administration maintain the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy that seeks to develop a regional order based on the rule of law.

Meant to check China’s expansionism

The FOIP was launched in 2016 by then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at an international conference in Kenya. The Japan’s vision emphasizes the freedom of navigation and quality infrastructure development as well as the rule of law in unexpressed rivalry with China that has promoted its militarization of the South China Sea and the Belt and Road Initiative designed to expand its sphere of influence. In 2017, President Donald Trump agreed to the Abe-advocated vision and adopted it as a U.S. strategy.

However, Biden and his key aides have so far shied away from using the term “Free and Open.” If they hesitate to use a term worn out by the Trump administration, they should reconsider. The term has become a household word to check China’s expansionism and Australia uses a similar slogan. If the new Biden administration revises the term, the revision could be taken by U.S. allies and friends as well as by China as indicating a U.S. shift to a conciliatory stance toward China.

Four cabinet-level senior Trump administration officials harshly criticized the Chinese Communist Party regime in a series of speeches last year. Particularly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concluded the U.S.’ China engagement policy as having failed, and triggered an ideological confrontation where the two countries cannot compromise with each other. However, the Biden administration officials have left an impression of being less harsh towards China, including Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken who said that the relationship with China “has adversarial aspects, competitive aspects, but also cooperative ones.”

Campbell, while admitting that an optimism that the China engagement policy would promote China’s democratization and respect of international rules was wrong, has argued that it is similarly wrong to assume that competition with China could prompt China’s regime collapse and that the U.S. has no choice but to coexist with China.

Campbell’s participation in the new administration

Campbell joined the administration of Bill Clinton as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific, contributing to working out an agreement on the return of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa to Japan. During the first term of the Obama administration, he served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, helping then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to come with the Asia “pivot” policy.

The pivot policy and the FOIP share an idea that China is the largest challenge to the U.S. in the 21st century. During the second Obama administration after Hillary Clinton and Campbell left, however, the pivot was renamed “rebalancing” policy and produced few effective results. I hope Campbell is determined to accomplish unfinished goals by joining a Democrat administration for the third time.

Yasushi Tomiyama is a senior research fellow and Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a former foreign news editor and bureau chief in Washington, D.C., London, and Bangkok for the Jiji Press.