Dealing with the Indo-Pacific is not easy


While IPEF might be a good idea, the framework does not address trade and tariff issues

While IPEF might be a good idea, the framework does not address trade and tariff issues

US President Joseph Biden cannot forget his recent five-day visit to Asia. Hours after leaving to return to the United States, North Korea tested three ballistic missiles even as it is concerned about a “fever” in the country. Japan’s defense minister said Chinese and Russian fighter jets conducted joint flights over the Sea of ​​Japan and East China Sea on May 24 as Quad leaders met in Tokyo. And when Air Force One landed in the United States, Mr Biden witnessed the fight between Republicans and Democrats over gun control legislation following a shooting at an elementary school in Texas that left 21 dead, including 19 children.

Biden’s Asian visit

Still, in the White House’s Biden assessment, the Asia trip’s record couldn’t have been better. South Korea’s new conservative government has shown its willingness to put pressure on North Korea and has said it will even expand the presence of a US missile defense system in the country, which had previously angered China. In Japan, the administration promised him that it was ready to remove its long-standing cap of 1% of GDP on annual defense spending.

Amid growing concern over Chinese military activity in the region, Biden told a news conference that the United States would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. The jury is still out on whether this unusually forceful statement from the president was a goof or a well-thought-out response. Be that as it may, the president and the members of his delegation were quick to go back and make it clear that there is no change in the substance of American foreign policy, which is still governed by the Taiwan Relations Act. According to the 1979 Congressional Act, the United States “will supply Taiwan with weapons of a defensive nature” so that the region can defend itself; the law is silent on the obligation for the United States to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion by China. But Mr Biden has made some people in the region happy even if the main purpose of his visit was not to clarify “strategic ambiguity”.

It’s no secret that the Indo-Pacific region has been under pressure and East Asia, in particular, has had to weather repeated storms. South Korea and Japan regularly face nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. China is not only challenging international maritime laws in the South China Sea, but also clashing with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. Six nations, including China and Taiwan, are involved in the dispute over the Spratly Islands, which are believed to lie on vast reserves of oil and natural gas. China has vigorously militarized parts of disputed islands, islets and coral reefs; and countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are eager not to be left behind.

The IPEF framework

The buzzword in the Indo-Pacific that President Biden wanted to emphasize was China. Almost all nations in this part of the world recognize the assertiveness and aggressiveness of Beijing, which is seen as wanting to be at the center of things and on its terms, but few are able to come up with a strategy to deal with China. And one of the ways the Biden administration has sought to circumvent this problem is to establish an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) with Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. , and Vietnam. IPEF will work to refine four main pillars: standards and rules for digital trade; resilient supply chains; green energy commitments; and fair trade.

Editorial | Caution and Clarity: On the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity

But early indications are that while IPEF may be a good idea, there is dissatisfaction that the framework does not address issues of trade and tariffs. The Biden administration wouldn’t want to touch that with a barge, especially with the midterm elections just five months away. “I think what America has to offer, and the only thing America has to offer is money. Some of which I think will be forthcoming, particularly for clean energy, maybe even some for supply chain resilience and anti-corruption,” said law and business professor Bryan. Mercurio at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “But of course what the Asian partners really want is trade. I think they want market access. And the commercial component of the IPEF is really lacking.

There are two facets of the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific that any administration in Washington needs to pay attention to. The first is that China’s neighbors would prefer to balance relations between Washington and Beijing. But as Michael Schuman said in an article by AtlanticThe message to Chinese President Xi Jinping should be loud and clear: “As in Europe, where Vladimir Putin’s aggression unites the rest of the region against him, so in Asia an aggressive China that entrenches, and not weaken, American power”.

On the other hand, there is the extent to which the countries of the region will want to follow the anti-China movement, economic or strategic. Whether in East, Southeast or South Asia, each country has its own unique relationship with Beijing. South Korea and Japan are part of a strong US security/strategic partnership, but will want to maintain their economic status with China. This also applies to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. India may be part of the Quad, but is well aware that it is the only country in the group that shares a disputed land border with China.

An arduous task

It is worth recalling what the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, said at the International Conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo on May 26: “In response to geopolitical tensions, countries have increasingly additionally emphasized resilience and national security considerations rather than economic gains from the free flow of trade and investment, but they must be very careful before taking extreme measures, preemptively before conflicts do not arise. Whether it’s disconnecting from global supply chains and striving to relocate or opting for ‘friends shoring’ and cutting off countries that aren’t allies or friends… such actions close avenues of regional growth and cooperation, deepen divisions between countries, and may precipitate the very conflicts we all hope to avoid”.

Comment | Deepening strategic engagement

Despite all the harsh talk before the bilateral talks or at the time of the Quad summit, the four Quad leaders did not mention Russia or China in the joint statement, as each of them understands the sensitivities. Moreover, President Biden is shrewd and aware of the whims of US lawmakers. As things stand, foreign policy has little impact and with Democrats expected to be mediocre on Nov. 8, legislation, especially around funding for outside initiatives, is going to be a daunting task.

Sridhar Krishnaswami is a former senior journalist in Washington who has covered North America and the United Nations


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