New Delhi: At a time of churn in US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team, the state department has outlined steps to implement its ambitious Indo-Pacific strategy, first sketched out by former secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

According to Alex Wong, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, “free and open" are the two strategic modifiers used to describe this strategy, according to a PTI report.

The usage of the term “Indo-Pacific" by the Trump administration as against “Asia-Pacific" used previously, “acknowledges the historical reality and the current day reality that South Asia and in particular, India, plays a key role in the Pacific, in East Asia and South-East Asia," the US official said.

The “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy is not just about China," Wong said, adding: “This is for the very simple reason that the region is much larger than China. In the ASEAN states alone, we have 600 million people. In India, we have 1.2 billion people."

Analysts in India said the fact that it was an official of the rank of deputy assistant secretary of state who defined key terms of the strategy did not inspire confidence. But the policy itself stayed within the framework of what was defined earlier, which is something to be welcomed.

Free and open Indo-Pacific strategy is not just about China.... This is for the very simple reason that the region is much larger than China. In the ASEAN states alone, we have 600 million people. In India, we have 1.2 billion people- Alex Wong, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs

“The clarifications are welcome. India would be in agreement with the definitions of the concept," former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said. “The Indo-Pacific strategy as outlined by Tillerson seemed much more security oriented. This (Wong’s) statement gives equal weight to economics," Sibal said.

Apart from providing “valuable clarifications on how America interprets the strategy, it also underlines the idea that China is not the only player in the region," he said.

Last month, Trump dismissed Tillerson and national security advisor H.R. McMaster. They are to be replaced by CIA chief Mike Pompeo and ambassador John Bolton.

According to Wong, “By free we mean...we want the nations of the Indo-Pacific to be free from coercion, that they can pursue in a sovereign manner the paths they choose in the region."

“Secondly, we mean at the national level, we want the societies of the various Indo-Pacific countries to become progressively more free – free in terms of good governance, in terms of fundamental rights, in terms of transparency and anti-corruption," he added.

The Indo-Pacific strategy as outlined by Tillerson seemed much more security oriented. This (Wong’s) statement gives equal weight to economics- Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal

“Moving on to open … we first and foremost mean open sea lines of communication and open airways. These open sea lines of communication are truly the lifeblood of the region," Wong said.

With 50% of world trade going through the Indo-Pacific along the sea routes, particularly through the South China Sea, “open" sea lanes and “open" airways in the Indo-Pacific are increasingly vital and important to the world, Wong said.

“Secondly, we mean more open logistics – infrastructure. There’s an infrastructure gap throughout the Indo-Pacific.... We want to assist the region in doing infrastructure in the right way, infrastructure that truly does drive integration and raises the GDPs of the constituent economies, not weigh them down," Wong said.

“We also mean more open trade. Free, fair, and reciprocal trade is something the United States has supported for decades and that the Trump administration supports," Wong said.

Responding to a question, Wong stressed the need to enforce the rules of free trade.

“You have to ensure that nations cannot abuse the rules, cannot force technology transfer, cannot prize their national champions, can’t steal intellectual property. If you don’t do this, if you don’t enforce the rules of free trade, what ends up happening is that over time, the free, fair, and reciprocal trading regime is weakened, and that’s to the detriment not just of the United States’s prosperity but to the prosperity of the region and the world as a whole," he said.

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