Four months ago, Singaporean foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan stated that Singapore would not be joining the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) because he did not know what the strategy entailed. In fact, the United States has not released a formal FOIP plan. At the time of his statement, public descriptions of the developing strategy had been confined to President Trump’s speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEOs Summit and a press event at the State Department. At the time, the world knew only that the United States was pursuing an international rules-based order built around the centrality of ASEAN (Association for Southeast Asian Nations) and defined as free and open. Congressional testimony on May 15 provided a more refined statement of the principles “free” and “open,” but did not speak to the manner in which FOIP would achieve them.
Secretary Mattis used his speech at the Shangri-la Dialogue to highlight the need for Indo-Pacific countries to cooperate in shaping the region’s future and outlined four themes of the FOIP strategy: 1) expanding attention on the maritime space; 2) improving interoperability with partners; 3) strengthening rule of law, civil society, and transparent governance; and 4) enabling private sector-led economic development. These themes provide an outline for how the United States intends to bring about the FOIP, but are broad lines of effort. As of yet, there are no specific initiatives for regional leaders to buy into.
Hesitancy among Indo-Pacific leaders is understandable. They have repeatedly been promised that the United States is committed to the region, but since the Al Qaeda attacks of 2001, attempts by the United States to demonstrate this have not always been convincing. Regional leaders continue to fear the United States is not wholly committed to a role in the Indo-Pacific region, subject to strategic distraction at the next crisis, and incapable of building an architecture that will maintain stability in the face of rising tensions.
Overcoming Diplomatic Baggage
In order to succeed, the FOIP must convince regional leaders that the United States is building a new regional order worth signing up for. Principles and themes for implementation are important, but the United States must demonstrate the willingness and ability to implement its vision. In the language of strategic planners, the United States has described the ends (principles) and the broad ways (the themes) of its strategy, but regional partners want to see the means (the tools used to implement the ways), which remain undisclosed.
Regional fears of flagging U.S. commitment suggest the FOIP should be implemented quickly. Since the FOIP is cooperative in nature, the means selected must be used in concert with partners. In fact, policy manifestations should encourage states to participate in multiple initiatives that uphold this order so they will become accustomed to working cooperatively towards that end. Additionally, the 2017 National Security Strategy and the FOIP themes recognize the requirement for these actions to span the components of national power: diplomatic, informational, military and economic. Taken together, these points suggest U.S. initiatives to implement the FOIP be narrowly focused, varied, easy to join, and interest-based.
This article proposes the United States promote dozens of small initiatives that partners can join as they choose, based on their own interests. It should also encourage partners to step forward and establish additional initiatives, which the United States will join as appropriate. This framework of small coalitions will not be a new take on treaty alliances, but a system of overlapping groups that pursue interests in common. In short, the United States should begin establishing dozens of communities of common interests (CCI).
Individuals are not motivated by a script, destiny, or orders they must obey. Rather, they seek to pursue their own interests, gain and maintain their own values, and increase their own flourishing. Often, the effectiveness of these efforts can be increased through cooperating with others. However, cooperation cannot take place at the point of a gun, or where no common interests exist.
Through CCIs the United States will seek those issues on which it has common interests with others in the region and begin acting in concert to gain or maintain the targeted interest. These interests should be narrowly defined so negotiation over their meaning is limited, allowing the CCI to rapidly begin functioning. Importantly, the United States must not be distracted by the siren song of a comprehensive regional-security architecture. Instead, it must pick low-hanging fruit that many countries can support to quickly establish the concept and demonstrate its efficacy.
A similar idea was offered in 2014 in Responding to Indo-Pacific Rivalry: Australia, India, and Middle Power Coalitions . Rory Medcalf and C. Raja Mohan argue for an approach to regional security built around “middle power coalitions.” Shunning new security structures or institutions—which they view as infeasible—they opt for an “array of overlapping coalitions that seek to improve the national security of their members through flexible partnerships defined by geography, capabilities, interests, or shared functional objectives.” Though they eschew the United States and PRC as members of these coalitions, it is not the size or influence of the powers that participate, but issue-specific coalitions founded on shared interests that lend the concept its value.