President Joe Biden has released his blueprint for US economic engagement in Asia, leaving it to the 13 founding countries, including Australia, to determine how to enforce their agreements.
Biden chose on his first trip in office to Asia to formally introduce the Indo-Pacific Prosperity Economic Framework (IPEF) on Monday, though critics said it offered little benefit to countries in the region even before it was announced.
The White House says the deal offers no tariff relief to countries joining, including India, Malaysia and the Philippines, but provides a way to solve problems ranging from climate change to supply chain resilience to digital trade. .
Washington has lacked an economic pillar for its Indo-Pacific engagement since former President Donald Trump quit a multinational trans-Pacific trade deal, leaving the field wide open for China to expand its influence.
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“The future of the 21st-century economy will be largely written in the Indo-Pacific, in our region,” Biden said at a launch event in Tokyo.
“We are writing the new rules.”
Biden wants the deal to raise environmental, labor and other standards across Asia.
The other initial founders are Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States.
But those founding countries will need to negotiate what standards they want to meet, how they will be enforced, whether their national legislatures will need to ratify them, and how to consider potential future members, including China, the officials told reporters.
“This will improve access to funding sources and technology,” said Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who joined the launch event via video.
“It is still a work in progress, with detailed consultations planned in the near future.”
US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told reporters that IPEF presents Asian countries with “an alternative to China’s approach to these critical issues.”
China has not expressed interest in joining IPEF.
Many of the standards Washington wants would make such a deal unpalatable to Beijing, a US official said.
Also left out of the initial talks was Taiwan, which wanted to join.
Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that Taiwan would not be part of the IPEF launch.
Still, Washington is seeking to deepen economic ties with the self-governing island, which China claims.
The IPEF, unveiled Monday, is an attempt to salvage some of the benefits of participating in a broader trade deal like the one Trump quit, now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and then known as TPP.
Trade and economics experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said it was unclear how the Biden administration planned to achieve IPEF’s goals or what incentives it might provide to encourage cooperation.
In a briefing note, they said that lowering barriers to participation in the launch by not requiring commitments to enter into negotiations had succeeded in attracting a larger number of participants than had been expected.
“However, these countries have only committed to attend an initial round of scoping discussions, and whether this initial broad enthusiasm for the framework continues once negotiations begin remains an open question,” they wrote.
China applied in September to join the CPTPP.
When Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met privately with Biden on Monday, he said he told the US president that Washington should rejoin the trade deal.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the TPP deal the US gave up on was “ultimately a pretty fragile thing.”
“The biggest problem was that we didn’t have the support at home to get it done,” he said of the deal that some feared would threaten American jobs.
Beijing seemed to have a low opinion of IPEF.
China welcomes initiatives that lead to strengthening regional cooperation, but “opposes attempts to create division and confrontation,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a statement.
“Asia-Pacific should become a high ground for peaceful development, not a geopolitical gladiatorial arena.”