In the week prior to US President Donald Trump embarking on his Asia tour, his National Security Adviser H R McMaster laid out one of the trip’s aims: ‘to promote his vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region’.
McMaster explained the key components of this vision: freedom of navigation and overflight, rule of law, sovereignty, no coercion, private enterprise and open markets. It is intended that US allies and partners like Australia will play a key role in translating this rhetoric into action, even if exactly what this means in practice remains to be seen.
Last month US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made it clear that (North Korea aside) the United States regarded China as the main country undermining its ‘free and open’ vision, while a quadrangle of the United States, India, Japan and Australia were hailed as its core defenders.
China has left itself exposed to the charge.
In July 2016 it rejected the ruling of an arbitration panel established in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to investigate claims made against it by the Philippines. The message this rejection sent abroad was that domestic law counts more than international law for Beijing — at least in the case of disputes in the South China Sea.
On the economic front, China will struggle to bill itself as a champion of open markets when many sectors of its own economy remain off-limits to foreign investors. According to OECD data covering 61 countries, China’s investment barriers are higher than all but three.
It’s also true that (in contrast to China) India has shown a willingness to use the UNCLOS arbitration process to clarify competing maritime claims with Bangladesh. Similarly, Australia has agreed to a Conciliation Commission pursuant to UNCLOS to resolve its maritime boundary issues with Timor-Leste.
Yet when it comes to a free and open Indo-Pacific, the ‘Quad’ is not without credibility problems of its own. The natural consequence of this is that China will reasonably look sceptically upon the grouping as an entity that might be antagonistic towards its legitimate rise. The fact that the China hawks in each of these countries are most loudly advocating for the Quad will only reinforce that perception.
On President Trump’s first day in office, he pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which previously had been touted by all negotiating states as the new gold standard in open and rules-based trade.
The only other multilateral free trade deal under negotiation in the Indo-Pacific is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), of which China is an enthusiastic supporter.
Yet a high quality RCEP has proven difficult, with reports suggesting that Japan has lost interest and India has been unwilling to match the offers of liberalisation made by other countries.