Team Biden’s New Plans for Asian Engagement

CommentaryPresident Joe Biden took advantage of his first Asia trip to announce a so-called Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). He floated the idea to an assembly of 12 nations from the region, notably not including China and Taiwan. The White House heralded the president’s visit and the announcement as indicative of America’s return to Asian engagement. The IPEF will do little as it stands, but it does have the potential to bring nations in the region closer to the United States while at the same time excluding China. To enjoy even a modicum success, this initiative will require a lot of additional effort on Washington’s part. The nations involved would include Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the seven other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. This group, along with Canada and several Latin American nations bordering the Pacific, was slated initially to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Negotiations for that trade deal fell apart when the United States withdrew in 2017. At that time, 10 of these nations used elements of the proposed TPP to form the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). In making his announcement, Biden credited the initiative as a way to enhance American leadership and solidify relationships on crucial economic and trade matters. That sounds promising but is nonetheless vague in the extreme. The detail released by the White House does little to clarify. Rather than explain the framework, spokespeople from the administration seem to prefer to describe it in terms of what it is not. They stress, for example, that it has no military component. It is entirely separate from the Quad agreement between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States or the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Nor, they stress, is the IPEF a trade treaty, as the TPP aspired to become. Indeed, the White House says it is not even the beginning of such a treaty though its spokespeople express hopes that it might pave the way to a future trade treaty. This is simply practical politics. Had Biden proposed a treaty, it would face a vote in the Senate, the success of which would be doubtful. The sparse detail offered on the IPEF consists entirely of four equally vague aims. One is to set rules for cross-border data flows. Setting such rules would involve intense negotiations, for all nations jealously guard data. Washington has offered no hint of what it wants those rules to look like. Nor has the administration even hinted at how the IPEF would enforce such rules, which, no doubt, is why some commentators bemoaned a lack of “teeth” in the American proposals. The second aim—of promoting “green energy commitments and projects”—fails to give any notion of their nature or extent. The framework is vaguer still when it comes to its third basic aim—to reduce corruption, promote “fairness,” and strive for effective taxation. A lack of specificity here is entirely understandable since such issues tread very close to matters of national sovereignty. That closeness to much that is highly sensitive also suggests that the aim is impractical. There was an opening for specificity in the fourth aim—creating economic resilience through supply-chain commitments—but the White House announcement nonetheless remained vague. If the IPEF leaves much to be desired as a basis for binding these nations together, it serves an immediate diplomatic function. Vague and “toothless” as it is, the “framework” in its admittedly very small way announces to all nations in the Indo-Pacific region—and especially to China—that the United States is planning to remain in the region for the foreseeable future, that the American “pivot” to the Pacific region (to use a word that former President Barack Obama was exceptionally fond of) will proceed, and that the United States has no intention of ceding any hegemony to China. It tells all countries in the region, albeit weakly, that China is not their only option for trade or anything else for that matter. Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times. Follow Milton Ezrati is a contributing editor at The National Interest, an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Human Capital at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and chief economist for Vested, a New York-based communications firm. Before joining Vested, he served as chief market strategist and economist for Lord, Abbett & Co. He also writes frequently for City Journal and blogs regularly for Forbes. His latest book is "Thirty Tomorrows: The Next Three Decades of Globalization, Demographics, and How We Will Live."

Team Biden’s New Plans for Asian Engagement

Commentary

President Joe Biden took advantage of his first Asia trip to announce a so-called Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). He floated the idea to an assembly of 12 nations from the region, notably not including China and Taiwan.

The White House heralded the president’s visit and the announcement as indicative of America’s return to Asian engagement. The IPEF will do little as it stands, but it does have the potential to bring nations in the region closer to the United States while at the same time excluding China. To enjoy even a modicum success, this initiative will require a lot of additional effort on Washington’s part.

The nations involved would include Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the seven other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. This group, along with Canada and several Latin American nations bordering the Pacific, was slated initially to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Negotiations for that trade deal fell apart when the United States withdrew in 2017. At that time, 10 of these nations used elements of the proposed TPP to form the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

In making his announcement, Biden credited the initiative as a way to enhance American leadership and solidify relationships on crucial economic and trade matters. That sounds promising but is nonetheless vague in the extreme.

The detail released by the White House does little to clarify. Rather than explain the framework, spokespeople from the administration seem to prefer to describe it in terms of what it is not. They stress, for example, that it has no military component. It is entirely separate from the Quad agreement between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States or the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Nor, they stress, is the IPEF a trade treaty, as the TPP aspired to become.

Indeed, the White House says it is not even the beginning of such a treaty though its spokespeople express hopes that it might pave the way to a future trade treaty. This is simply practical politics. Had Biden proposed a treaty, it would face a vote in the Senate, the success of which would be doubtful.

The sparse detail offered on the IPEF consists entirely of four equally vague aims. One is to set rules for cross-border data flows. Setting such rules would involve intense negotiations, for all nations jealously guard data. Washington has offered no hint of what it wants those rules to look like. Nor has the administration even hinted at how the IPEF would enforce such rules, which, no doubt, is why some commentators bemoaned a lack of “teeth” in the American proposals.

The second aim—of promoting “green energy commitments and projects”—fails to give any notion of their nature or extent.

The framework is vaguer still when it comes to its third basic aim—to reduce corruption, promote “fairness,” and strive for effective taxation. A lack of specificity here is entirely understandable since such issues tread very close to matters of national sovereignty. That closeness to much that is highly sensitive also suggests that the aim is impractical.

There was an opening for specificity in the fourth aim—creating economic resilience through supply-chain commitments—but the White House announcement nonetheless remained vague.

If the IPEF leaves much to be desired as a basis for binding these nations together, it serves an immediate diplomatic function. Vague and “toothless” as it is, the “framework” in its admittedly very small way announces to all nations in the Indo-Pacific region—and especially to China—that the United States is planning to remain in the region for the foreseeable future, that the American “pivot” to the Pacific region (to use a word that former President Barack Obama was exceptionally fond of) will proceed, and that the United States has no intention of ceding any hegemony to China. It tells all countries in the region, albeit weakly, that China is not their only option for trade or anything else for that matter.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Milton Ezrati is a contributing editor at The National Interest, an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Human Capital at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and chief economist for Vested, a New York-based communications firm. Before joining Vested, he served as chief market strategist and economist for Lord, Abbett & Co. He also writes frequently for City Journal and blogs regularly for Forbes. His latest book is "Thirty Tomorrows: The Next Three Decades of Globalization, Demographics, and How We Will Live."