‘Unbelievable’: Biden economy plans tough sales in Asia | International commerce

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – U.S. President Joe Biden’s arrival in Seoul on Friday not only marks the beginning of his first incumbent visits to South Korea and Japan, but also the beginning of an economic initiative. economy to deepen U.S. relationships throughout Asia.

While many details of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework are yet to be finalized, the Biden administration has made one point clear – the plan is not a traditional trade agreement that would reduce tariffs or open access to the US market, which is a partnership to promote common economic standards.

While many of China’s regional neighbors share Washington’s concerns about the rising ambitions of the superpower, the IPEF’s lack of clear trade terms could make the IPEF a difficult prospect. to potential members, especially in Southeast Asia.

Calvin Cheng, senior analyst for economy, trade and regional integration at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera: “You can sense the frustration for countries. growing, dependent on trade. “The idea is always talked about attracting Asia, but what exactly is it – and what is the impetus for developing countries to adopt the standards that the richer developed countries are imposing. for them?”

Since announcing the IPEF in October, the Biden administration has described the initiative as a way to promote common standards under the pillars of fair and sustainable trade; supply chain resilience; infrastructure, clean energy and decarbonisation; and taxation and anti-corruption.

A fact sheet distributed by the White House in February described the framework as part of a broader effort to “restore American leadership” in the region by engaging with partners there. to “face pressing challenges, from competition with China to climate change to pandemics”.

However, Biden’s decision not to pursue a major trade deal has to do with former US President Donald Trump’s protectionist leanings, and in particular, his administration’s abrupt withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Binh Duong (TPP) is a landmark.

Trump, whose aversion to traditional alliances has sparked anxiety in many Asian countries, scrapped that deal in 2017 despite sharing the agreement’s goal of combating influence expansion. China’s economy.

Yoon Suk-yeol
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol expressed support for Biden’s new economic initiative [File: Seong Joon Cho/Bloomberg]

But even without a clear interest in boosting trade, Asian leaders have, for the most part, reacted favorably to the prospect of US re-intervention in Asia.

Longtime allies Japan and South Korea are expected to be the first to join the IPEFSo are Singapore and the Philippines.

From Vietnam, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh at the recent US-ASEAN Summit said Vietnam “looks forward to joining the US in implementing the four pillars of that initiative”.

However, he added that Vietnam needs more time to study the framework, as well as see more “specific details”.

Thailand has also shown interest, while leaders in Indonesia and India have yet to make a clear position.

Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer in international relations at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said Hanoi wishes to avoid being disadvantageous to the US or China – a view common to all countries. Southeast Asia tries to stay away from great power struggles. while avoiding being dominated by their northern neighbor.

Mr. Sang told Al Jazeera: “The Vietnamese government has been quite cautious when it does not intend to join the IPEF or not, although I think there are many benefits to participating,” Mr. Sang told Al Jazeera, at the same time. lists clean energy and reliable supply chains as common interests.

However, Mr. Sang said that other standards, such as those related to taxes and anti-corruption efforts, might be a step too far for the Vietnamese government.

“I think Vietnam might be really reluctant to join that pillar for fear of the US interfering in Vietnam’s domestic politics,” he said.

“The anti-corruption campaign is certainly going on, but many Vietnamese are very skeptical of this view of cooperation, especially with the US when the Biden administration has prioritized democratic values ​​when promoting relations with foreign countries. water in the region”.

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Such concerns could dampen renewed U.S. engagement, particularly as China has taken the position of wanting to engage in trade without such value-based constraints. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free-trade agreement that went into effect earlier this year, is a testament to that inconvenient approach for some observers.

China plays a key role in RCEP negotiations, which includes Japan and South Korea, plus all 10 ASEAN member states – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – as well as Australia and New Zealand.

In total, the RCEP covers about 2.3 billion people and an estimated 30% of the global economy. The Partnership is seen as more focused on promoting trade by removing tariffs and red tape, with a less holistic approach to raising economic standards than the TPP or its successor. Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Cheng described the CPTPP, to which the US is not a member, as the “gold standard” for trade agreements in the region, noting its commitment to expand access to trade as well as provisions to protect labor rights, promote promote transparency and address climate change and environmental issues.

“So the IPEF pretty much has that, but removes the trade agreement aspect of it, leaving only the standards,” he said.

It remains to be seen how far the standards-based approach will go in terms of gaining acceptance across Asia.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has called for the US to take a more inclusive approach to trade [File: Samsul Said/Bloomberg] (Bloomberg)

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and International Trade Minister Azmin Ali have said that the US should take a more comprehensive approach.

Ali described the framework proposal in an interview with Reuters as “a good start for us to engage on different issues” and said Malaysia would decide which pillar of the IPEF it would consider joining. . At the same time, he made clear that the IPEF is not a replacement for the more comprehensive TPP.

Some of the most outspoken public criticism of the new framework on that front has come from prominent former ministers in Japan, one of America’s most staunch allies in the region.

Earlier this month, former foreign minister Taro Kono and former justice minister Takashi Yamashita spoke at an event in Washington about the lack of firm commitments of the new framework, an aspect they see clearly in the context of the new framework. TPP suddenly collapsed. In their comments, both maintained that the IPEF would only be aimed at undermining the CPTPP.

“Now that the Biden administration is talking about the Indo-Pacific Economy, I would say forget it,” Kono said.

Hiroaki Watanabe, a professor of international relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, said the US withdrawal from the TPP has weakened Japanese perceptions of the IPEF’s stability. While Biden could push his framework while in office, Watanabe said, there’s no guarantee the next president will.

“For now, it’s the Biden administration, but we don’t know what’s going to happen next – maybe even Trump again,” Watanabe told Al Jazeera.

“From a non-American perspective, it’s really hard to believe what the US is saying when they say they want to commit to these plans,” added Watanabe. “There are many challenges to this logistics, and then the US could drop the kind of commitment the IPEF has measured in the future. In fact, it’s not pointless, but it’s also insignificant.”

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