Phnom Penh, Cambodia – US President Joe Biden’s arrival in Seoul on Friday marks not only the start of his first visit while in office to South Korea and Japan, but the beginnings of an economic initiative aimed at deepening United States ties across Asia.
Though many of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework’s details have yet to be finalised, the Biden administration has made one point clear – the plan is not a traditional trade agreement that will lower tariffs or otherwise open access to US markets, but a partnership for promoting common economic standards.
While many of China’s regional neighbours share Washington’s concerns about the burgeoning superpower’s ambitions, the IPEF’s lack of clear trade provisions could make it an uninspiring prospect for potential members, especially in Southeast Asia.
“You can sense the frustration for developing, trade-reliant countries,” Calvin Cheng, a senior analyst of economics, trade and regional integration at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera. “There’s always talk about engaging Asia, the idea, but what exactly is it – and what are the incentives for developing countries to take up standards that are being imposed on them by richer, developed countries?”
Since announcing the IPEF in October, the Biden administration has characterised the initiative as a way of promoting common standards under the pillars of fair and resilient trade; supply chain resilience; infrastructure, clean energy, and decarbonisation; and tax and anti-corruption.
A fact sheet distributed by the White House in February describes the framework as part of a wider push to “restore American leadership” in the region by engaging with partners there to “meet urgent challenges, from competition with China to climate change to the pandemic”.
Nevertheless, Biden’s decision not to pursue a major trade deal harks back to the protectionist leanings of former US President Donald Trump, and, in particular, his administration’s abrupt pullout from the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Trump, whose antipathy towards traditional alliances sparked anxiety in many Asian countries, scuttled that agreement in 2017 despite sharing the deal’s aims of countering expanding Chinese economic influence.
But even without clear benefits to boost trade, Asian leaders have, for the most part, reacted favourably to the prospect of renewed US engagement in Asia.
Longtime allies Japan and South Korea are expected to be among the first to engage with the IPEF, as are Singapore and the Philippines.
From Vietnam, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said at the recent US-ASEAN summit that Vietnam “would like to work with the US to realise the four pillars of that initiative”.
However, he added that Vietnam needed more time to study the framework, as well as to see more “concrete details”.
Thailand has also demonstrated interest, while leaders in Indonesia and India have yet to take a clear position.
Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer of international relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, said Hanoi wished to avoid antagonising either the US or China – a common position for Southeast Asian states attempting to stay clear of great power struggles while avoiding being dominated by their northern neighbour.
“The Vietnamese government has been rather prudent not to showcase any intentions to join the IPEF or not, though I think there are many benefits to joining,” Sang told Al Jazeera, listing clean energy and reliable supply chains as common interests.
Sang said, however, that other standards, such as those related to taxes and anti-corruption efforts, could be a step too far for the Vietnamese government.
“I think Vietnam could be really reluctant to join that pillar for fear of the US intervening in Vietnam’s domestic politics,” he said.
“The anti-corruption campaign is definitely going on, but many Vietnamese are very sceptical of this view of cooperation, especially with the US when the Biden administration has prioritised democratic values when fostering ties with regional countries.”
Such concerns could undercut the renewed US engagement, particularly when China has made a point to engage in trade without such values-based strings attached. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade deal that went into effect at the start of this year, is a testament to that hands-off approach to some observers.
China played a key role in negotiating the RCEP, which also includes Japan and South Korea, plus all 10 of the ASEAN member-states – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – as well as Australia and New Zealand.
In total, the RCEP covers some 2.3 billion people and an estimated 30 percent of the global economy. The partnership is widely seen as being 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, the reassembled Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Cheng described the CPTPP, of which the US is not a member, as the “gold standard” for trade deals in the region, noting its commitment to expanded trade access as well as provisions to safeguard labour rights, promote transparency and address environmental issues and climate change.
“So the IPEF is pretty much that, but taking out the trade deal aspect of it, leaving just the standards,” he said.
It remains to be seen how far the standards-only method will go in terms of winning acceptance across Asia.
Already, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and international trade minister Azmin Ali have said the US should take a more comprehensive approach.
Ali described the framework proposal in an interview with Reuters as a “good beginning for us to engage on various issues” and said Malaysia would decide which IPEF pillars it would consider joining. At the same time, he made clear the IPEF was not a replacement for the more-comprehensive TPP.
Some of the most straightforward public criticism of the new framework on that front has come from prominent former ministers in Japan, one of the region’s most steadfast US allies.
Earlier this month, former foreign minister Taro Kono and former justice minister Takashi Yamashita spoke at an event in Washington of the new framework’s lack of hard commitments, an aspect they found glaring in the context of the abrupt collapse of the TPP. In their comments, the two maintained the IPEF would only serve to undermine the CPTPP.
“Now the Biden administration is talking about the Indo-Pacific Economic whatever, I would say forget about it,” Kono said.
Hiroaki Watanabe, a professor of international relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, said the US withdrawal from the TPP had undermined Japanese perceptions of the IPEF’s stability. Though Biden may promote his framework while in power, Watanabe said, there was no guarantee the next president would.
“Right now, it’s the Biden administration, but we don’t know what will come next – it could even be Trump again,” Watanabe told Al Jazeera.
“From a non-American perspective, it’s really difficult to believe what America is saying when it says it wants to commit itself to these plans,” Watanabe added. “There are many challenges to the logistics of this, and then the US may just throw away the kind of commitment as measured by the IPEF in the future. Practically, it’s not meaningless, but it’s not significant either.”