Biden’s blurry Indo-Pacific economic vision brings few new ideas to benefit Asia
- The US president’s visit to Asia holds symbolic importance, but it is unclear what tangible benefits will emerge
- Details on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework are in short supply, and the plan seems to offer little that Asia’s current bilateral and multilateral deals do not
Whether the meetings succeed in generating any substantive messages, or what those messages might be, remains open to question. Just before flying out on Air Force One, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan did his best. He said the president would be bringing “a message of an affirmative vision of what the world can look like if the democracies and open societies of the world stand together to shape the rules of the road to define the security architecture of the region to reinforce strong, powerful historic alliances”. Clear as mud.
These include the “war on terror” following the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers in New York in 2001, the invasion of Iraq and other Middle Eastern conflicts, and the latest Russian assault on Ukraine. The shape of any strategy to build alliances across Asia remains elusive.
What stability does Modi provide, though? He must count as the group’s most equivocal member, with India still refusing to formally condemn Putin for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Sullivan has said the IPEF would “chart the course for effective, principled, American leadership and engagement in a region that will define much of the future of the 21st century”. He added that it would be “setting the rules of the digital economy, ensuring secure and resilient supply chains, managing the energy transition, investing in clean, modern high standards infrastructure”.
But even before Biden landed in Seoul, reports emerged he was considering watering down the IPEF in a move to attract more countries to join the deal. It is still unclear how that would be useful.
Asian leaders have made two key points clear. They do not want to join a deal that forces them into a choice between China and the US, and they want a deal that offers better trade and investment access to the US market. Given the US political consensus over the need to contain China and the reluctance to further open the US market to Asian products, it is difficult to imagine what substance the IPEF can offer.
Even if the Biden administration is committed to this latest pivot, it cannot exclude China. According to Unctad’s 2021 World Investment Report, China has become the world’s largest outward investor and is on a par with the US as a leading destination for investment. It is the world’s second-most important export market for developing economies behind the US, and the largest if Chinese exports through Hong Kong are included.
The IPEF and Biden’s pivot to Asia must be a non-starter if they fail to directly engage China. The pivot might be possible if Biden is just talking guns, but the minute he includes butter – as most in Asia want – progress will evaporate. Only time will tell if Biden’s team learns this during his important visit to Asia.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view