The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy: India’s Wary Response

Politics World

The United States has signed on to Japan’s concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy aimed at preserving the international order in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. As the two countries seek to promote this strategy, which is seen as being a response to China’s growing presence, they have drawn Australia and India into quadrilateral security consultations. New Delhi, however, remains somewhat wary in its response to this initiative from Tokyo and Washington.

Japan and the United States have adopted the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, or FOIP, as a regional strategy and have sought to give it body through the Quadrilateral Strategic Approach, or Quad, a framework for security cooperation among four major democracies: Japan, the United States, Australia, and India. India also uses the Indo-Pacific (the Indian and Pacific Oceans) as a strategic regional concept, but meanwhile it has been maintaining its strategic autonomy at the policy level, as can be seen in its posture toward FOIP—a stance of being involved but also maintaining a certain distance. In this article I will consider the reasons behind New Delhi’s wariness toward this regional initiative advanced by Tokyo and Washington.

A Japanese-Born Strategic Concept

The idea of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy was originally advanced by Japan, although the regional concept of the Indo-Pacific was truly sparked by the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. As noted in the 2017 edition of Japan’s Diplomatic Blue Book, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō first presented FOIP to an international audience at TICAD VI, the sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, which was held in Kenya in August 2016. In his keynote address to the conference Abe declared, “What will give stability and prosperity to the world is none other than the enormous liveliness brought forth through the union of two free and open oceans [Indian and Pacific] and two continents [Asia and Africa]” (MOFA 2017a). And when US President Donald Trump visited Japan in November 2017, he agreed with Abe to pursue this strategy.

In a press release on November 12, 2017, titled “Australia-India-Japan-U.S. Consultations on the Indo-Pacific,” the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported, “Senior officials of diplomatic authorities in Japan, Australia, India and the United States, met in Manila, the Philippines on November 12, and discussed measures to ensure a free and open international order based on the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific,” and noted, “The participants affirmed their commitment to continuing discussions and deepening cooperation based on shared values and principles” (MOFA 2017b). These Quad discussions represented a step toward realization of FOIP. Another round of four-way talks was held in June 2018.

Negative Responses from China

The Quad talks are a response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and other moves to expand its global presence. From Beijing’s perspective, they are nothing other than a means of containing China. In 2007, when such Australia-India-Japan-US moves first surfaced, the Chinese showed a strong negative reaction. They view such frameworks, whether quadrilateral or trilateral (involving the United States and two of the other three countries) as being aimed at encircling them (Garver and Wang 2010). And their response to the 2017 Quad session was the same. One Chinese expert wrote that the four-way talks were meant to contain China and warned that they would hinder regional development (Lian 2017). Another declared that the FOIP strategy, aimed at blocking the Belt and Road Initiative, was doomed to fail (Liang 2017). Critics also asserted that the Quad countries were establishing an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In a press conference on November 13, 2017, Geng Shuang, deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, expressed concern, noting that such multilateral initiatives should promote cooperation among countries concerned and not be turned into exclusionary frameworks.

The Trump Administration Goes Along with the Strategy

Two distinctive features of the recent Quad consultations are (1) Japan’s role as the main mover behind the talks and (2) India’s full-fledged participation. The United States appears to have been more of a supporter than a leader. Meanwhile, Australia has also supported the Quad process, as seems only natural in view of its alliances with Japan and the United States.

One issue, though, is the degree of commitment to FOIP on the part of the “America first” Trump administration. Under President Barack Obama, the United States was promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the mainstay of its economic policy toward Asia, paired with a “rebalance to Asia” as its overall strategic policy toward the region. But Trump has taken the United States out of the TPP and has abandoned the Asian rebalance policy. T. J. Pempel of the University of California has summed up Trump’s first 12 months as a period of “absenteeism from Asia” (Pempel 2017). When Trump made his tour of Asian nations in November 2017, since he had no Asian policy of his own, going along with Japan’s FOIP initiative was his only option.

Even before Trump’s visit, however, US administration officials had been discussing quadrilateral cooperation. For example, in an address on October 18, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke of extending the trilateral engagement among the United States, India, and Japan to include Australia.  And National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster is said to have started frequently using the term “Indo-Pacific” shortly before President Trump’s Asian tour (Japan Times, November 4, 2017). Then, in the National Security Strategy released by the White House in December, the United States clearly expressed its wariness toward China and Russia and desire to promote quadrilateral cooperation, declaring, “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor,” and stating, “We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner. We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India” (White House 2017, pp. 25, 46).

It would be impossible to attribute the policy change entirely to the change of the US government. In a pre-Trump-era work, Sheila Smith, an American scholar on Japan, noted the importance of both China and Japan for the United States, writing, “The biggest challenge for U.S. policymakers will be developing a cooperative relationship with Beijing while not undermining the United States’ close alliance with Tokyo” (Smith 2015, p. 260). In this respect the Quad consultation framework at the diplomatic level is probably the most suitable approach for Washington at this point. And John Mearsheimer, American international political scientist, pointed out that for the United States, which has a rich history of acting as an “offshore balancer,” the ideal strategy for dealing with China is to leave the task of containing it almost entirely up to the countries of the region, remaining in the background as much as possible (Mearsheimer, 2014, p.385). The Quad process may be seen as a reflection of this sort of thinking.

India’s Wary Posture

India, meanwhile, has yet to fully commit itself to the FOIP strategy and the Quad consultations. As noted in the 2017 Diplomatic Bluebook, “During Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi of India’s visit to Japan in November 2016, the two leaders shared the view to take the initiative for the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region by enhancing the synergy between Japan's ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ and India's ‘Act East Policy’ through collaboration” (MOFA 2017a).  But New Delhi has not given its full approval to FOIP or the quadrilateral framework. In his keynote address at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1, 2018,(*1) Prime Minister Modi used the term “inclusive” four times, stressing that the Indo-Pacific envisaged by India must be a free, open, inclusive region—“FOIIP” rather than “FOIP.” Prime Minister Abe also said in his January 2018 policy speech to the National Diet that Japan would “work with China” based on the overall direction of the FOIP strategy (italics mine). His inclusiveness looks no more than diplomatic rhetoric.

In short, Modi’s references to inclusiveness mean the inclusion of China. For New Delhi, relations with Beijing are a top foreign policy priority, and in order to maintain a stable bilateral relationship, India has been both engaging China and hedging against it (Horimoto 2018). Shortly after Modi took office in 2014, Sandy Gordon, a South Asia specialist at the Australian National University, suggested a possible scenario under which “India would seek the best deal it can from China, both economically and in terms of a possible border settlement, while attempting to maintain its hedge against a possible difficult rise of China with powers such as the US and Japan” (Gordon 2014). At the moment, India cannot confront China just by itself, nor can it do so by teaming up with Japan. It will have to rely on the Quad framework.

New Delhi can use the Quad as a hedge against Beijing, taking the Chinese criticism of the four-way framework as coming from the bureaucratic rather than political level. While continuing to be a regular member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (an eight-country grouping that includes China and Russia) and to participate in the BRICS summit (an annual gathering of the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), India will probably agree at any time to upgrade the Quad consultations to the foreign-ministerial or prime-ministerial level. Meanwhile, from 2002 through 2017 India has held the RIC foreign ministers’ meeting among Russia, India and China on 15 occasions.

New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy is informed by the idea of balancing China and Russia against Japan and the United States, and it may be seen being an expression of “strategic autonomy”—a term that has been widely used within India as an expression of the country’s new foreign policy stance since the start of the current decade— accompanied by its multialigned approach to the world (Ayres, 2018, p216)  Looking at it from another angle, we can see it as a policy of cooperating with Australia, Japan, and the United States in the seas and with China and Russia on the Eurasian landmass. But for India the strategically crucial waters are the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, rather than the Pacific Ocean.

Since around 2010 India’s foreign policy has been conducted on three levels: global, regional (Indo-Pacific), and local (South Asia) (Horimoto 2017). New Delhi’s main troubles now are with antagonists at the regional level (particularly China) and at the local level (particularly Pakistan). Now that China and Pakistan are moving even closer together with the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), India may look at the pursuit of the FOIP strategy and Quad consultations by its diplomatic authorities as a realistic option for hedging against China while avoiding causing excessive friction.

International Implications of Closer Japan-India Ties

International politics in the Indo-Pacific region as of now ultimately boil down to the issue of how to deal with China, which seems to be working to replace the United States as the regional hegemon and establish a Sino-centric international order. With the rise of China’s power and the relative decline in that of the United States in the region, the United States is no longer capable of holding China down as it could before. In this context, FOIP and the Quad can serve as effective approaches.

India aims ultimately to become a great power in its own right, but at the current stage its only options involve cooperation with other countries. For Japan, meanwhile, the alliance with the United States has served as the linchpin of its foreign policy, but the foundation of dependence on Washington is becoming less solid. It is in this context that the relationship between Tokyo and New Delhi has been continuing to grow closer and stronger.

Japan, meanwhile cannot place its entire reliance on the United States as its sole ally. India stands to play a supplementary role in this connection. For India, Russia previously acted as a quasi-ally, providing support for New Delhi’s foreign policy in the post–Cold War period, but since the mid-2010s Moscow has been shifting visibly toward Beijing. In addition, China and Pakistan have been moving fast toward closer ties, both with the development of the CPEC and with the deterioration of relations between Washington and Islamabad. So, even though India is taking a cautious attitude toward the FOIP strategy, it sees Japan as a welcome partner. It is hard to predict how the situation will develop against this complex background.


Ayres, Alyssa. 2018. Our Time Has Come: How India is Making its Place in the World: Oxford University Press.

Garver, John, and Fei-Ling Wang. 2010. “China’s Encirclement Struggle.” Asian Security, vol. 6, no. 3 (September 20).

Gordon, Sandy. 2014. ”Will China ‘Wedge’ India and the US?” South Asia Masala blog, June 5.

Horimoto, Takenori. 2017. ”Explaining India’s Foreign Policy: From Dream to Realization of Major Power” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific (OUP), Volume 17, Issue 3, September 1, 2017.

Horimoto, Takenori. 2018. ”Debate: The Indo-Pacific Region Needs a Strategy to Both Hedge, and Engage, China.” The Wire, July 21.

Lian Dengui. 2017. “Four-Way Talks Meant to Contain China Miss Regional Development Demand.” Global Times, October 31.

Liang Fang. 2017. “Indo-Pacific Strategy Will Likely Share the Same Fate as Rebalance to Asia-Pacific.” Global Times, December 3.

MOFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan). 2017a. Diplomatic Bluebook 2017, chapter 1, section 2.

MOFA. 2017b. “Australia-India-Japan-U.S. Consultations on the Indo-Pacific. Press release, November 12.

Pempel, T.J. 2017. “Trump’s Democratic Destruction and Asian Absenteeism.” East Asia Forum, December 30.

Smith, Sheila A. 2015. Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China. New York: Columbia University Press.

White House. 2017. National Security Strategy of the United States of America. December 2017.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on September 14, 2018. Banner photo: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi on August 15, 2018. © AP/Aflo.)

(*1) ^ The Shangri-La Dialogue, also known as the IISS Asia Security Forum, is an intergovernmental forum held annually in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. -Ed.

United States India Pacific Ocean policy