US plans trade meetings with ASEAN leaders as it retools Indo-Pacific strategy

Joshua Cartwright and Robert Delaney, South China Morning Post

Posted at Apr 07 2022 01:46 PM | Updated as of Apr 07 2022 01:51 PM

US President Joe Biden's administration is renewing efforts with Southeast Asian countries to advance a new Indo-Pacific strategy, amid criticism that the plan falls short on trade.

US deputy secretary of commerce Pamela Phan discussed the goals on Wednesday during the US-Indo-Pacific Conference at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

Phan said the administration wanted to get a summit with Asean leaders on the calendar "in the next couple of months", calling it "a key piece to advancing that relationship". That meeting was supposed to take place in Washington last week, but the White House postponed it indefinitely because of unspecified scheduling conflicts.

The US also hopes to sign a memorandum of cooperation with Malaysia on supply chain resilience when its trade minister visits Washington in May. In June, the US under secretary of commerce for international trade will lead a clean energy mission to Indonesia, Vietnam and possibly the Philippines.

Indonesia currently chairs the G20 and will host the 2022 G20 Leaders' Summit in Bali on October 30-31, and the gathering has taken on extra significance because Russian President Vladimir Putin's planned attendance. The US and its allies are pushing for Putin's ouster from the group because of Moscow's war against Ukraine.

Clean energy and stronger supply chains and alliances are central to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which aims to maintain free and open trade in the Indo-Pacific while heightening environmental, cyber and labour standards in the region.

"It's not your traditional free trade agreement," Phan said, "and so a lot of questions come up about what this looks like."

"First and foremost, with the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, we are looking at conversations about infrastructure, decarbonisation and clean energy as a key focal area," she said. "The more inclusive we can be with IPEF, the more countries in the region we can engage on these issues."

Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, is among those critical of Biden's Indo-Pacific strategy, calling the IPEF "a weak substitute for the real thing" and reiterating claims that the framework is too long on labour and environmental standards and lacking in market access agreements.

"I think (when it comes to) the administration's reluctance to enter into new trade agreements, this is sort of being offered up as an as an alternative, but it's not," said Cornyn, who spoke shortly before Phan at the CSIS conference. "It's not what I would hope for in terms of getting new trade agreements."

Cornyn, the ranking member of the Senate subcommittee on international trade, customs and global competitiveness, also reiterated his disappointment that the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

That trading bloc was initiated by the Obama administration, and later regrouped as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after president Donald Trump pulled the US from the pact.

While Cornyn said he would like to be optimistic about the prospects for the US joining the CPTPP or something similar, he said he thought the administration didn't have the appetite for it.

Representative Colin Allred, a Democrat from Texas, expressed a similar desire for market access in a separate hearing on Wednesday with deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman.

"While I understand that (IPEF) is going to go beyond (a traditional trade agreement), I would like to see us have a trade agreement," Allred told Sherman at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

Other countries "are moving forward without us now, and I think there's a US-sized hole there. And in many ways, China wants to fill that," he added.

Appearing on another panel at the CSIS conference, American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Zack Cooper said Washington has underinvested in the region.

"If you think in the long term about the countries that the United States can do a lot more with than it's already doing, I think a lot of those countries are in Southeast Asia," he said.

"I think we have to acknowledge that some of what Senator Cornyn said is fair, right? That what the region wants is probably a bit more than IPEF," he added.

"What the region wants is some degree of trade liberalisation, and that's not what the United States is offering."

Additional reporting by Owen Churchill

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