A concise dictionary of the FOIP language—1st edition
11 Jul 2018|

The free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) isn’t just a new name; it signals an important shift in framing a geostrategic understanding of the consequences of China’s rise. Apart from the ongoing process of clarifying the scope, meaning, objectives and roles of the actors involved, a new narrative is being built with incremental use of a special vocabulary—the FOIP language—which I’ll attempt to decode.

The Shangri-La Dialogue is the premier Asian security summit because it engages the largest number of defence ministers in one room. The SLD is also one of the best forums for listening to the most prevalent complaints, observing the mood and voicing concerns. As such, it’s a barometer of regional security tensions. As a dialogue platform, it’s all about defence diplomacy—which means that language matters.

While the SLD isn’t the only forum in which the FOIP language is spoken, it’s a venue for popularising the FOIP lexicon. FOIP was referenced in most speeches at the 2018 SLD, the two most important of which were delivered by the keynote speaker, Indian PM Narenda Modi, and by US Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Both Modi and Mattis, along with most of the other defence ministers in attendance, used a common set of terms. For example, some countries were blamed for unilateral actions that undermine the rules-based order. Other commonly used phrases included freedom from external coercion, equality despite the size, and quality infrastructure. Many of the terms are used antonymically: they highlight the absence of something rather than the presence of it.

Unpacking each term leaves room for creative interpretation. Still, ‘like-minded’ nations can crack the code, at least to some degree. ‘Indo-Pacific’ suggests that the like-minded might have reached an inflection point in their concerns—mainly about China—and are willing to come up with a common strategy or stance to address those worries. An indication of their alignment is how willing they are—beyond bilateral discussions and with witnesses—to openly voice their concerns.

According to communication theory, a message has three elements: the intended message (what the sender meant to say), the conveyed message (what the message actually says) and the received message (what the recipient thinks the message says). At the SLD, there were multiple senders with varying degrees of coherence in their intended messages. Let’s dwell on some of those.

Starting with communicating actors: Who are the like-minded countries? Judging from the SLD performances, they’re the US, Australia, Japan, France, India and perhaps the UK (although there were variations among them). What do they agree on? The unanimous answer is: China—in particular, the aggressive China that violates international law in asserting its territorial claims and expands its influence around the world through a range of economic and political means.

Rule of law—apparent in all of the speeches mentioned above—usually refers to a lack of adherence to international law by China and its flouting of the arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling. Maritime security refers more to the South China Sea disputes than to any other maritime issues. And freedom from coercion—while having more than one application—often refers to China’s intimidation of other claimant states, particularly through militarisation of artificial islands and conducting military exercises in and around disputed waters.

Respect for sovereignty appears to underline the lack of it, also in the context of China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. Stressing the need for countries to respect equality despite the size also alludes to power asymmetry in the region, where China looms over its neighbours, most visibly in Southeast Asia.

Words need to match actions and a need for transparency are phrases used to chastise China for denying that it was militarising the artificial islands while continuing to do so.

Some countries, for most, but not all, is another way of calling China out; although China has used that phrase before, too, presumably referring to the US.

It’s risky to assume that ‘like-minded’ states have a shared understanding, let alone aligned strategies. So far, what seems to be uncontested is that the ‘Indo-Pacific’ would be a region in which predatory economics (a code reference to China’s debt-trap lending patterns) are countered by quality infrastructure. That point is hammered home by noting the many public infrastructure projects sprinkled around China’s Belt and Road Initiative maps.

Yet as both Modi and Mattis talked about the FOIP, there were a number of discrepancies signalling differences in how they envision a free, open, equal, prosperous and quality-based region. The main divergence among the FOIP language speakers also centres on … China.

While China’s aggressive rise presents a challenge for all, approaches to addressing that challenge differ even among those who embrace the FOIP. Again, when juxtaposing Modi’s and Mattis’s speeches, India appears to prefer growth together, whereas the US wants cooperation where possible. Regional actors seem more comfortable with the Indian approach, as was apparent in Singaporean defence minister Ng Eng Hen’s speech where he referred to ‘some countries’ with an emphasis on the plural—stressing that big countries, both China and the US, need to refrain from using coercion against smaller ones.

These messages are being received in a variety of ways. Southeast Asian states are hesitant, and warning others not to push them into choosing sides (at least not openly). An emphasis on values (as opposed to what China offers) might unsettle an Asian audience. It would seem insincere and hence unconvincing, given the colonial legacy of those who push hardest for the rule of law, including the US and its Western allies. More importantly, it’s insensitive for the US to press for Indo-Pacific nations to promote a balance of power, when the perception of the US’s fluctuating reliability is only strengthening. China’s presence, by contrast, be it good or bad, is a given. Both Modi and Ng pushed back against such insensitivity in their speeches.

The emergence of a code language is a fascinating phenomenon and indicates the effect that China is having on the region. Invention of a new lexicon isn’t only a diplomatic exercise to allow flexibility and creativity, but also reflects the need to self-censor, among both small and big countries. The FOIP vocabulary will continue to have different meanings for individual actors, but for the code to work there needs to be a shared understanding of the core messages. For now, it seems that the only common word is China.