US’ Indo-Pacific economic framework to be judged on actions
Published: Nov 18, 2021 06:30 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

The US plans to launch "a formal process" to develop an Indo-Pacific economic framework early in 2022, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in Singapore on Wednesday. She also said that the US plans "coalition of democracies" for trade and that it won't join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Currently, the Indo-Pacific economic framework remains theoretical, with its details yet to be made public, but the initiative already reflects the economic strategic goals of the Biden administration in the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific region.

First, the Indo-Pacific economic framework is designed to serve the US' Indo-Pacific strategy. The Biden administration inherited and deepened the concept of the Indo-Pacific strategy floated by the Trump administration. White House officials know well that the Indo-Pacific strategy has many weak links, with the lack of an economic plan being one of its major shortcomings. The new framework is designed to fill the gap.

Second, the new framework will exclude China. Judging from the overall diplomatic and economic strategy articulated by the Biden team, the framework will exclude the world's second-largest economy for political reasons. Worse still, the framework will target China, reflecting a trend of the US seeking to undermine regional economic cooperation initiatives proposed by China.

Third, the new framework will continue the US-centric approach. This initiative focuses on the national interests of the US, rather than the stable economic growth of the region. The selection of framework topics, cooperation partners, and implementation rules must all prioritize the assessment of US interests.

Like many economic cooperation initiatives put forward by the US in the past, the new framework is a clear deviation from the right path forward for regional economic cooperation. Regional countries should be aware that the new Indo-Pacific economic framework only serves the geopolitical calculation of the US.

In terms of regional economic cooperation, the US has never lacked initiatives, but what it lacks is commitment. The very predecessor of the CPTPP that the US now refuses to join is the same Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) proposed by the Obama administration.

The root cause behind the US' irresponsible attitude is the fight between the two parties in US' domestic politics. If the US persisted in advancing the original reasonable agreements based on regional economic interests, it would have already been deeply embedded in the institutional arrangements for regional economic cooperation.

When the US pitches an economic initiative, it always uses language and spin to persuade regional countries, but it always fall short in actual investment. For instance, the US has portrayed an inclusive, open, free prosperity vision for the Indo-Pacific economic framework, but it remains questionable as to how much money the US will invest in the plan to promote regional cooperation. Given its current financial difficulties, how can it be possible to invest heavily in regional economic initiatives? Even if the US does invest for the sake of geopolitical goals, how will it be sustained over the long term?

When it comes to new US geopolitical thought bubbles, regional powers will continue to judge the US on its actual actions and on each specific cooperation framework. The most important thing is that the position of the overwhelming majority of members of the region is to hope that the US regional economic strategy will abandon the narrow consideration of competing with China and instead will earnestly cooperate with China. China-US cooperation is in the common interest of most countries in the region. If the US cannot get rid of old thinking, no matter how it adjusts, it will be heading in the wrong direction.

The author is deputy director of the Center for American Studies, Fudan University.