Tue, 16 Aug 2022

by Yi Xin

BEIJING, June 25 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Joe Biden formally announced the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) on May 23 in Tokyo during his first Asia tour, revealing what Washington enshrined as a key component of its so-called Indo-Pacific economic strategy.

Cameras on the launching event caught a lot of smiles, clapping, nodding and back-patting, all for a show of strength, leadership and solidarity behind the current U.S. administration's nostalgic touting of "America is back."

Flagrantly admitting that Washington is aimed at "writing the new rules for the 21st century economy," Biden claimed that the agreement would make the participants' economies "grow faster and fairer." U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo depicted the framework as "the most significant international economic engagement that the United States has ever had in this region."

Can this "first-of-its-kind initiative," as the U.S. government calls it, put its "stamp on this critical region for decades to come" and help build a stronger, fairer, and more resilient economy for all in the region?

The answer is yes and no. It certainly will leave some sort of a U.S. mark on the region. But it might not be a framework that benefits all. The logic behind this conclusion is simple and clear.

For any new economic cooperation initiative to succeed, it should first and foremost be reciprocal and include tangible benefits for all participating partners, not just fancy words and vague promises.

As for the IPEF, it is anything but a reciprocal and mutually beneficial agreement.

The framework has not involved, nor has it promised to involve in the future, negotiations to remove tariffs or increase market access because of Washington's fear of manufacturing outsourcing and massive job losses, which would surely lead to considerable domestic political backlash.

As a result, this initiative cannot offer countries in the region what they crave -- wider access to the U.S. market and more trade. Yet at the same time, the United States is asking the participants to change their laws, regulations and the way they operate only to serve U.S. interests.

In a nutshell, signatories to this framework are making concessions in exchange for no gains.

Secondly, a successful economic agreement should be open and inclusive. Although the Biden administration has insisted that the IPEF is an open framework that welcomes participation, take a look at the list of countries not included -- China, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, to name but a few. It is all too obvious that the IPEF is neither open nor inclusive, not to mention that the IPEF contains exclusive and even punitive clauses which might well disrupt global supply chains and hinder technological cooperation.

Given the fact that U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has publicly declared the IPEF to be "an arrangement independent of China," no one will be surprised if the trajectory of this framework turns out to be more defined by the United States' geopolitical agenda rather than the actual economic dynamics in the region.

Despite all the purely ornamental diplomatic talk, the IPEF is actually an exclusive framework designed to counter China's rising influence in the region -- a tool created by Washington to tip the geopolitical balance to the advantage of the United States rather than to achieve common prosperity for all.

Thirdly, a successful economic agreement should have stable, consistent and durable working mechanisms. The IPEF is purposefully designed by the Biden administration into a framework that needs no congressional approval as the White House itself knows that the framework stands little chance of winning bipartisan support.

Without congressional approval, whether the framework will be legally binding for the United States remains an open question. Given the volatility of U.S. domestic politics, it is understandable that potential participants are raising legitimate concerns about the stability, consistency and durability of the IPEF and questioning whether the United States would make good on its commitments under this framework.

After all, the memory of a strong U.S. leadership within another U.S.-framed trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and its abrupt withdrawal after Donald Trump became president still haunts many regional partners.

What makes things worse is that the United States had a spotty record when it comes to keeping its promises, such as championing efforts to reverse climate change first, and later becoming the first and indeed the one and only nation in the world to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, or violating its obligations by willfully walking away from the Iran nuclear deal, to name just a few.

Though this lack of substance and teeth is spun as a feature instead of a bug by U.S. politicians, we can find few -- indeed no -- historical precedent of such a vague and loose initiative creating enough obligations and commitments to spur game-changing momentum.

In essence, the IPEF is nothing but a tool created by the United States to extort geopolitical gains, instead of a trade agreement that guarantees market access and tariff exemptions, which is genuinely wanted by regional countries.

This nonreciprocal, potentially transitory and exclusive IPEF goes against the trend of free trade, contradicts the established principles of openness, inclusiveness, equality and mutual benefits in the region, and fails to meet regional countries' aspiration to promote trade liberalization and facilitation and peaceful development. Such an all-for-one framework is doomed to failure once and for all.

(Yi Xin is a Beijing-based observer.)

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